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WhatsApp’s new terms of service? Kiss your privacy goodbye

With Facebook’s insatiable appetite for personal data, the new requirement for users of its popular subsidiary should be a red light to us all
Tech giants are creating precise personality profiles of each and every one of us. (Stock)
Tech giants are creating precise personality profiles of each and every one of us. (Stock)

“I have read the terms of service and I approve them all.”

Sound familiar? Let’s face it: Most of us don’t even bother to read the terms of apps when they pop up just before we use them for the first time. And if we hardly bother with those, the chances are low to nil we’ll read updates to the terms of service for an app we already are familiar with, use, and to which we are possibly even addicted.

So here is a summary of the terms of service that most of us approved without much thought when WhatsApp announced January 15th it had updated its privacy policy and gave its users a stark choice: Approve the changes by February 8 in order to continue using the popular messaging app or leave. Due to the public outrage resulting from this move, WhatsApp postponed the deadline to May 15, 2021.

WhatsApp continues to insist that respecting users’ privacy is coded into its DNA since its establishment. But in the same breath, it announces that the service is being merged with Facebook, which bought it in 2014, in order to offer “a better user experience and integration between applications and products” of the parent company. Given that Facebook’s well-known business model is based on tracking its users, this announcement should be a red light to us all.

This change means that from now on, WhatsApp will share with Facebook and with its other companies (such as Instagram and VR company Oculus) information provided by users, information that it gleans from users’ activities, and information it gathers about users from other companies. Thus, Facebook will be able to combine the personal data of users from across its different products and maximize its knowledge about them. Though the practice of collecting personal data and sharing them with all other Facebook companies is not new – indeed, it began in 2016 – users now have no possibility of opting out of this practice while continuing to use Facebook services.

The data collected and shared include the user’s telephone number, name, profile picture and status, usage of the app (with whom they message and when), contacts, battery level, signal strength, system language and time zone, IP address, and location. At least the content of the messages themselves remains encrypted and protected. For now.

Why should this bother us? Even if the data collection as described seems reasonable when weighed against the cost of moving to another messaging app that most of our contacts don’t use, this is a slippery slope.

Experience tells us that when it comes to personal data, Facebook’s appetite is insatiable. Collecting and processing as much personal data as possible is the basis of Facebook’s business model, as it is for other tech giants, such as Amazon and Google, and it is designed to create precise personality profiles of each and every one of us. This profile is used to tailor advertising and marketing content to each individual user, though it can also be used to design individualized political messages or to recommend joining certain Facebook groups. This makes it possible to shape an individual’s self-image and political views and, eventually, to impede their ability to make independent choices and decisions. These tools are already being used by states such as Russia, extremist groups (such as those behind the storming of the US Capitol), and political movements.

Only government intervention and broad consumer protest can change these practices.

In the European Union, government intervention in the form of comprehensive new privacy legislation prevents WhatsApp from passing on personal data to Facebook and its companies. In Israel — with its outdated 1981 Privacy Protection Law, its toothless Privacy Protection Authority with no real powers to punish offenders, and its inability to pass legislative amendments — we can only look on with envy, and seek alternatives. For example, Telegram and Viber offer free messaging services that are similar to those provided by WhatsApp, without using personal data. Other examples include Threema and Signal, which is now considered the most secure instant messaging service, and which gained around 100,000 new users in Israel this week, seemingly in response to WhatsApp’s new privacy policy.

Without a significant change to legislation, only a concerted consumer protest can make it clear to Facebook and the like, that respecting users’ right to privacy cannot be just another empty slogan, and that the time has come to put it into practice.

About the Author
Rachel Aridor-Hershkovitz is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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