What’s up with WhatsApp?

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

WhatsApp’s new terms come into force today, following a delay of several months after a pronounced backlash to its announcement.

If you’re a reader from the UK, the app likely needs no introduction. It is enormously popular here; data from 2020 shows there were 30.9million users, around half of the smartphone owning population. The US had more users overall at 68.1million, although this is a smaller percentage of the overall population. India has by far the most users with more than 390m.

Since it launched in 2009, WhatsApp has been a pioneer in popularising secure messaging. However, it was bought by Facebook in 2014, a company now well-established as the world’s most avaricious harvester of user data. A reckoning has always felt somewhat inevitable.

That reckoning arrived in an announcement of new terms of service at the start of the year, which included some concerning small-print from their parent company.

“As part of the Facebook family of companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies,” the new privacy policy stated. “We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings.”

WhatsApp’s announcement seems to have been forced by the introduction of privacy labels by Apple, which arrived just before its announcement and helped expose how much user data is collected by apps. Apple’s privacy labels revealed that WhatsApp is the only leading secure messenger that harvests “data linked to you,” including your device ID, for “developer’s advertising and marketing.” It also collects your contact info, user ID and device ID for ominously vague “other purposes.”

WhatsApp has defended itself by claiming that other apps are not better for having less information. “We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data,” a blog post from 18th February reads.

The cynical response was quick and deserved. Analysts questioned whether this really constituted “limited data”, and why WhatsApp really needs to collect so much more than other apps. Implying that this is an inevitable part of the service the app offers doesn’t hold, when alternatives don’t come with the same pitfalls. The lack of transparency is aggravating; users have the right to understand exactly what data is collected and how it is being used.

WhatsApp’s obfuscation has continued as to the consequences of not accepting the update, stating that it “will not delete your account” but users won’t have access to your existing messages or be able to send new ones. They will still be able to receive calls and notifications but only “for a short time”. A timeframe has not been supplied.

It appears that not accepting the update means your account will effectively become what WhatsApp calls “inactive”. Existing WhatsApp policy states that its accounts are usually deleted after 120 days of inactivity, so the claim that users’ accounts won’t be deleted seems more than a little disingenuous.

WhatsApp’s official Twitter account sent a tweet in mid-January assuring users that no account would be deleted for not accepting the new terms. The announcement that accounts would be at best locked and likely deleted without accepting new terms came one month later, and the company has ignored requests for clarification. Since the deadline for accepting the new terms comes into force today, we’ll likely get a sense of the consequences soon.

While this admission hasn’t been explicit, the changes to WhatsApp reflect Facebook’s likely vision for WhatsApp since the purchase in 2014; to transform it into a Western equivalent of the Chinese multi-purpose app WeChat. WeChat has been dubbed the “everything app”, as it allows users not only to message friends and family, but also order takeaway, pay utility bills, and even contact essential government services.

For users averse to WhatsApp’s new direction, there are alternatives. Signal has had an enormous popularity boost thanks to a shout-out from Elon Musk. It has slightly fewer features but is a good free alternative. There is also Threema, which has a small upfront charge but is subsequently free. Telegram has become popular choice but does not apply end-to-end encryption by default and lacks the meta data protection of Signal and Threema.

Crucially, WhatsApp chats are retaining their end-to-end encryption – for now. Private conversations cannot be accessed to inform advertisements or for other purposes. The app’s future, however, remains to be seen – particularly if it successfully rides out this year’s backlash.

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