WhatsApp Privacy Changes Roil Users, Governments

WhatsApp Privacy Changes Roil Users, Governments

Facebook under growing scrutiny after new data-sharing policy with the messaging platform announced

The Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp on Monday lost a prominent user, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he was quitting the popular app because of the latest changes in its privacy policy.

Ankara’s premier has hardly been the only one. The Turkish alternative to WhatsApp, called BiP, which Erdogan promised he would migrate to, gained close to 1.5 million users in the past 48 hours alone. More popular messaging services like Signal and Telegram have attracted hundreds of millions of users around the world as well.

Yet these platforms can hardly compete with the Facebook-owned behemoth – currently boasting close to 2 billion users –which has for years dominated the messaging-service market.

In recent days, WhatsApp has required users to approve its latest privacy policy update. The seemingly routine procedure for the update slated to take effect on February 8, will enable the app to share its users’ data with parent company Facebook and its other subsidiaries such as Instagram and Messenger.

“These changes mean that all the data that WhatsApp has – such as location metadata, who you chatted with (but not the chat content), groups, and all other data – will be shared with the vast Facebook ad system,” Ran Bar-Zik, a prominent Israeli tech blogger and technology journalist for Haaretz, told The Media Line.

“It is not the first attempt by WhatsApp to integrate the user data into their system, but now this is mandatory – agree or you’re out,” he said.

“This is big,” Bar-Zik said of the change. He explains that while Facebook has over the years compiled massive amounts of information via its site and its “like” buttons and tags code spread across myriad websites, “this is a channel to a vast, valuable quantity of data [that will enable] Facebook to tighten its grip on us, to develop better tools and techniques to keep us glued to its endless feed and develop better, more effective ads.”

People used to just download and click accept, accept, accept. Now, all of a sudden, they’re presented with an option to either approve the changes or quit the app.

Yuval Dror, a technology sociologist and the former dean of the College of Management Academic Studies’ School of Media Studies, sees things differently.

“It’s not like before this change the Great Wall of China was separating WhatsApp and Facebook,” he told The Media Line. “People used to just download and click accept, accept, accept. Now, all of a sudden, they’re presented with an option to either approve the changes or quit the app.”

The new terms of use constitute a significant step in Facebook’s apparent attempt to consolidate its assets and make it harder for authorities to break up the tech giant.

If successful, Mark Zuckerberg’s company will be able to monetize WhatsApp, eventually allowing businesses to contact users and sell products via the platform.

Last month, United States’ federal and state regulators joined to file landmark antitrust lawsuits against the conglomerate.

Yet while Erdogan’s office on Sunday vowed not to use WhatsApp for government business, Israeli authorities seemed less concerned.

“The latest change is only privacy-related, and doesn’t expose users to cyberattacks,” Libby Oz, spokesperson for Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, told The Media Line.

“There are more complex questions here – should government employees use only government-issued phones? Should WhatsApp be used by public officials for personal issues?” Oz said. “But as to the latest policy update, that’s not something we can do much about.”

Dror argues that while there is no clear national security threat in Facebook’s increasing dominance, Israel’s regulators should take notice of its monopolization.

“They’ve been totally impotent, it’s incredible,” he said of Israeli lawmakers. “The government has intentionally avoided dealing with Facebook, for political reasons, among others.”

The few bill proposals intended to limit Facebook’s powers that have been brought to a vote were shot down by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, Dror said, “who are very satisfied with their cooperation with Facebook and don’t want to harm it.”

“I don’t see any regulator or lawmaker taking it upon themselves to lead this battle,” he said.

Over the years, competing instant messaging platforms have cropped up, offering more secure and encrypted services.

Signal, initially released in 2014, has gained a following in recent years by cybersecurity experts and government officials, ranging from the US Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms to the European Commission, while also being used by journalists, whistleblowers and protesters worldwide.

An open-source, non-for-profit service, Signal has more than 10 million downloads on Android.

The even-more popular Telegram was launched in 2013 by two Russian brothers, programmers who wished to form a messaging platform safe from government censorship. It currently has over 400 million active monthly users.

In Israel, over 90% of cellphone holders use WhatsApp as their main messaging service.

“It’s the network effect – once it reaches a critical mass of users, the value of that network grows. At a certain point, it becomes virtually impossible to migrate to competing platforms,” Dror explained.

“Is it possible for Israelis to leave WhatsApp en masse? Yes, but it’ll be extremely difficult,” he said.

As for possible changes in official Israeli policy toward WhatsApp, similar to the latest Turkish government’s pivot to homegrown brands, Bar-Zik is skeptical.

“Creating a government system to ‘replace’ WhatsApp is a horrible idea,” he said. “I don’t trust Facebook, but I trust government apps much less.”

Is it possible for Israelis to leave WhatsApp en masse? Yes, but it’ll be extremely difficult

Asked if he believes the Israeli government should mandate its employees to use more secure services like Signal or Telegram for government business, Bar-Zik was clear: “On government phones? Yes, of course. On private property? No.”

Experts recommend that users back up their WhatsApp chats data before transferring to a new platform.

  • iPhone users should use iCloud: Go to WhatsApp Settings > Chat Settings > Chat Backup (In some versions, Settings > Backup), and tapping on the “Back Up Now” button.
  • For Android users, the same can be done with Google Drive: Go to Whatsapp Settings > Chat > Chat Backup, and tap “Back Up” to save an immediate copy of your WhatsApp chats.

Users wishing to restore their chat history when returning to WhatsApp must reinstall the app. Devices will automatically detect previous backup files and will provide an option to restore them. Simply tap on the “Restore Chat History” or the “Restore Backup” option.

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