What about that Whatsapp privacy policy change?

You may have heard recently that Whatsapp’s privacy policy has changed ‘for the worse’ and that it is now sharing user account information with Facebook. What’s that all about and what should you do about it?

Whatsapp is a mobile phone app that provides messaging services between users of the app. Whatsapp accounts are linked to phone numbers. Facebook is an online social media platform with 1.7 billion monthly users (as of June 2016). Facebook bought Whatsapp for US $19 billion in 2014 and now Whatsapp has over 1 billion users. Prior to its acquisition, Whatsapp charged a fee to its users – a nominal $1. After the acquisition, the fee was eliminated, leaving the company’s business model unclear to users. Whatsapp announced earlier this year that they would introduce tools to let businesses connect to users.

One of the founders of Whatsapp, Jan Koum, was born in Soviet-era Ukraine and the matter of privacy is said to be personal to him. Whatsapp now encrypts all messages that are sent between users using updated versions of the app, meaning not even the company can read messages that are sent through the app.

Why then are we so concerned? The information that Whatsapp does have is metadata – data about data. Whatsapp has the contacts on your mobile phone (required to provide its service), the time you last checked the app, the person whom you messaged, when you messaged them, how many times, etc. Go back three years and you might recall that this is the kind of data collection by the NSA that caused a huge uproar when Edward Snowden blew the lid on it.

A record of phone calls or messages between you and a specialist doctor may reveal medical concerns of yours. Phone records between two parties may allow for inferences where nothing may be relevant – or they may give away something about one’s life that one prefers to keep private. The choice of whether these matters are made known to others belong to the people whom they concern – not to an internet / communications company, the government or advertising firms. You will lose that choice if your Whatsapp account data is transferred to Facebook. Facebook is an advertising company and the metadata is going to be used to serve you with advertisements from businesses.

What causes more worry is the manner in which this has been implemented. We have the option to opt out of the sharing of account data. The opt out is designed to be easy to miss. You still have 30 days to go back and update your settings, but after that the choice to opt out is removed entirely.

But does it really matter? Many of us do share a lot of information about ourselves publicly on our social media profiles. Even the content that is restricted to ‘friends’ can be copied, screenshotted and shared by our contacts. A certain level of sagacity is called for when sharing matters that one may think are not public and that is upto your own judgement.

Take the following steps now to take control of your Whatsapp account data: https://www.whatsapp.com/faq/general/26000016

Did the Paris shooters communicate using Playstation 4?

The news has been spreading that the Paris shooters planned their attacks using the Playstation 4. Is this true?
1. There is no reason to believe that it is.
2. The belief that they did so originated from an interview given by the Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, three days before the attack, talking about IS in general, and not about the particular attack which was then in the future.

The more interesting question is whether it matters if they did.

Should governments now start monitoring in-game chats in the Playstation network? OK. How about in-game chat for the Xbox? How about Words with Friends? The above are examples of communications that get ignored on account of the huge amount of noise from actual gamers. How about spoken words or a real-time drawing or video? Then there are real messaging applications, some of which are encrypted, some of which actually do a very good job of it.

Should governments start monitoring communications between every app that is built and made available to any two humans in order to ensure that terrorists do not plan something? Is this even possible? It may be interesting to think about a Person of Interest – like system that has the ability to monitor everything and alert the good guys when danger threatens someone. Thinking that the government can eavesdrop on every communication is folly. Aside from the technical hurdles for encrypted communications, there is the hurdle of the huge volume of noise to sort through.

Governments should come to the realisation that mass-surveillance is not the answer and that porn-viewing and playing video games is just perhaps a wastage of hard-earned tax money. There is pressure from the electorate to be seen doing something after any act causing terror, but doing something useless or harmful is worse than doing nothing.