Privacy Wars II: Facebook Wants Your WhatsApp Data
by Adam Pease
The privacy wars continue. Popular messaging solution WhatsApp has declared that its terms of service update, scheduled for February, will now be pushed back to May. This update would have required users to consent to have their data shared with Facebook businesses. In this log, we discuss the implications of the delay and the concern for user privacy throughout tech more generally.
WhatsApp Concerns Its Users
While the initial coverage of this update has left many users in arms, the reality is a bit more subtle. In truth, WhatsApp has been sharing user data with Facebook since 2016, regardless of consent. WhatsApp did provide one chance to opt out back in 2016, but this was only a 30-day window. It has announced that it will still honor the privacy of users that made that decision, however.
Facebook's Privacy Issues
Facebook has been in hot water recently, following a dispute with Apple that revolved around Facebook's attempts to harvest data from user devices. Apple CEO Tim Cook's recent allusion to Facebook's failures to protect user integrity has cast the issue into more severe relief.
This recent WhatsApp drama only serves to fan the flames. While it is true that the application has not furthered any of its privacy-infringing policies, it has succeeded in reminding its users just to fast and loose it has been playing with their privacy up until this point.
As a result, many users are now learning for the first time just how invasive their messaging services have become. WhatsApp shares the content of messages between users and businesses with businesses through its hosting infrastructure for the sake of marketing optimization. It is true that these messages are encrypted, but many users are uneasy to know that their statements are being combed through and saved forever to drive business insights. Additionally, Facebook allows businesses to exploit a wide variety of user metadata, including location information.
The Rise of Privacy-Centric Solutions
Recently, many voices throughout the tech industry have been raising concern about the need for more privacy-centric solutions. Last year, Aragon published a special report about hot privacy solutions for the enterprise. There is no doubt that as users continue to seek secure privacy solutions in their private lives they will carry those expectations into the workplace.
Leading the pack right now are communications apps like Signal and Telegram. These apps have gotten the attention of some prominent figures in the tech world by promising that they are designed specifically to protect user privacy, without the invasive data harvesting techniques often used by Facebook.
The rise of these solutions shows that the privacy wars are heating up. Users are becoming more aware of their rights and feeling more threatened by the intrusion of invasive data gathering into their lives. It remains to be seen which providers will really capitalize on this trend?
What Messaging App Should I Use?
If you're a longterm WhatsApp user, we think you'll be fine continuing to use it. Unfortunately, you likely weren't one of the few to opt out at the initial opportunity back in 2016, and, as a result, your data has already been saved to the Facebook servers where other businesses can access it. If you're not a WhatsApp user, or you'd just like to stop using Facebook's product in general, the two hot solutions right now are Telegram and Signal.
Telegram has more circumstantial encryption. While users can create 'secret chats,' between each other, this option is disabled for group chats and must be explicitly turned on, which means not every conversation is guaranteed to be encrypted. On the other hand, Telegram has some features that make it more attractive to certain users. It includes a very large default group chat size and high limits on file sharing, both of which may appeal depending on one's particular needs.
Signal, by contrast, is a product designed from the ground-up for privacy, and it has built-in encryption for all communication. While Telegram stores messages in its servers, Signal only stores locally, on the device, which is a big argument in its favor from some users.
Privacy is becoming a central concern for enterprises and users. WhatsApp's terms announcement struck a chord with consumers because today's buyer is worried about having their privacy violated. For offerings like Signal and Telegram, which promise a solution, it may be their time to shine. While many will look at Signal and Telegram, enterprises should look at a commercial team collaboration service that has specific service level agreements on what they will do and won't do with your data.