The WhatsApp Problem

Come February 8th, WhatsApp will require you to accept its terms and conditions to use the app. Facebook is going to make sweeping changes to its product that was somewhat insulated from its data grabbing tentacles until now. If Facebook was collecting data under the hood previously, they now want to do it openly. Even with the anti-trust hearing coming up, Facebook’s idea seems to be to suck out as much data as they can in the intervening time or they are just cocky about coming out of it unscathed. Naturally, there’s a lot of chatter in the tech community on moving away from WhatsApp. (Well that was what I wrote before I came across this. What do you know? Facebook has already been doing what we suspected. I don’t even remember getting a choice to opt out of sharing my information. Most probably I accepted and moved on back then.)

I am trying to move to Signal and convinced at least two of my friends to install the app to keep in touch but I doubt they will get rid of WhatsApp. Most would just accept the new terms and privacy policy in the blink of an eye. Or switch back after the excitement dies off. I don’t IM much but would like to keep in touch with few friends I text regularly on WhatsApp. I don’t have high hopes of them converting but left them with my email address as fallback. My mother started using WhatsApp recently and its been a blessing for my family to be able to see and interact with my kid. My wife still uses WhatsApp to keep in touch with her friends all over the world and I don’t see her switching to Signal anytime soon 😓️. My family could just call her instead of ditching WhatsApp. People with families/friends who don’t live close to each other or on the same continent have always used WhatsApp and for a privacy illiterate (using it loosely here even for those who are aware but don’t care) its a huge pain to switch their existing network.

We who eat, live and breathe technology find it trivial to use the various protocols for communication and feel ecstatic to be in touch with like-minded people over secure and decentralized channels but terms like XMPP, Matrix, OMEMO, OTR, PGP, E2E encryption, federation mean jack shit for ordinary people (I detest the term “normies” as they are called in these channels). We are ensconced in our tech bubble that ignores the situation of such people. The ease with which you can sign up for WhatsApp doesn’t exist for anything else (WhatsApp has the advantage of being there in this space first too). My parents don’t have an email address. They got broadband at home last year so that they can be in touch with me. Their cellular network stays down more often than its up. They have bigger fish to fry (sometimes literally 😅️) than worry about an app. Then there are folks whose social network is so deeply ingrained in WhatsApp that anything new will be met with weird glances. Hitting a big blue Agree button is rather convenient. You are lucky if you convinced every contact of yours to switch or told them to eff off and reach you only on text/phone calls but its an uphill battle for many on both ends.

Do we give in to the ad company and continue living rest of our lives in blissful ignorance? I have no panacea for Facebook’s march towards sucking up all the personal data in the world. I tried to mitigate this by ditching Facebook and Instagram but turns out I did not pay much attention to the third finger in the pie. The world will keep ticking the same for many after February 8th. A majority of them will stay on WhatsApp just like I did back then. In fact, many would argue that this data grabbing is not something new so why change now? My answer is just because a leech has been sucking your blood for so long, do you keep letting it? We don’t stop generating data about ourselves at any point in our lives. Just like blood, we keep generating more and more data and Facebook wants every drop of it. Even if its a small ripple in the pond we can try teaching, who are willing to listen, about why privacy matters. Then try getting them started on simple apps like Signal first and then on to federated networks. Be the tiny voice of reason urging them to value their privacy. Maybe these tiny ripples will create the tsunami we need.

Day 69 - Join Me in #100DaysToOffload