With the humongous increase in cybercrimes and ransomware attacks in today’s global clime, tensions are running high and paranoia has certainly become the order of the day. Added to this is people’s growing anxiety over data privacy, as well as the amount of their data tech giants, have access to. How did the world get to this state?
Though technology has been and still is the enabler of the global advancements that we enjoy today, it is the perfect instrument of choice for tech-savvy criminals who at the push of a button can bring down economic catastrophe on their unsuspecting victims.
As a result, people are increasingly possessive when it comes to sharing their private information, even something as innocent as an email address.
What bearing does this have on this discussion? You may recall that WhatsApp recently announced its updated Terms of Service to share its users’ data, including location and phone number, with its parent company Facebook Inc and other apps it owns.
Until now, the data sharing policy was optional, but at the end of the stipulated deadline, initially February 8, 2021, it will become mandatory. The new policy compels two billion WhatsApp users to either agree to the new terms and conditions or have their accounts deleted.
Unsurprisingly, this radical move has put it squarely on the receiving end of flaying criticisms across the globe such that many users have threatened to boycott the app completely.
Some, not ready to quit the popular chat service, have moved to alternative social platforms such as Signal and Telegram just in case. Still, there are others who in defiance or ignorance (especially the elderly and uneducated) can’t be bothered to switch to and learn how to navigate a new messaging app.
In addition, Will Cathcart, director of the service released a statement on Threader that the changes made to the policy will only apply to its business branch and that conversations will continue to be encrypted.
Understandably, one can’t be too careful in protecting ones’ data as leaving it vulnerable can bring severe consequences. With this in mind, several high-profile personalities, including the world’s richest man, Elon Musk have endorsed Signal, a rival platform.
Be that as it may, the decision to espouse or reject a social media platform on any sort of ground should be done rationally not in the heat of panic or misinformation.
You may need to consider a few things to decide whether or not to jump ship or as Elmarie Biermann, Director at Cyber Security Institute eloquently phrased it “to WhatsApp or not? Telegram me a Signal”- pun intended.
Firstly, to establish, maintain and operate chat services is no piece of cake. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp and its competitors Signal and Telegram offer free services to users. Hence, it is not surprising that in the case of WhatsApp, the cost users bear is their digital profiles.
Secondly, the above is not necessarily a scary notion as the concept of profiling is not new. According to Biermann, users’ profile or parts of it is already available to the social giants if you use services such as Gmail, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and the like.
Although there is no major change to how WhatsApp handles users’ data, yet people immediately interpreted the app’s privacy notification to mean that it was mishandling all kinds of personal information as well as and sharing that data with businesses.
Is your information really secure on WhatsApp?
According to Cathart, mentioned earlier, WhatsApp does not have access to the content of your messages or calls; it remains private to you. Neither does it retain your location data or pass it to Facebook.
Although it collects users’ contacts, it does not share them with its parent company. It also claims that nothing you share, including messages and photos, will be shared on Facebook unless you do so.
While the social platform has access to your mobile number and your contact list which you must have provided while registering for its service, it is not privy to your bank details or a record of your financial activities.
It should be noted that WhatsApp acknowledges that the information that can be shared with Facebook for marketing purposes is that which is generated through the “Shops” platform that allows users to make purchases through the messaging service.
The rationale behind this is to enable brands to display personalised ads on Facebook and Instagram. To allay the suspicion of users, the company promised that it will inform them when the company with which it is maintaining contact has chosen to save its information in the Facebook host.
Are the alternatives better?
The idea of being monitored or tracked through their data no doubt makes people ill at ease. Perhaps, George Orwell’s dystopian fiction “ Ninteen Eight-Four” has impressed on some schools of thought the possibility of an all-seeing Big Brother surveilling the activities of people globally.
If you strongly feel that you have to migrate from WhatsApp to other messaging platforms, take the time to study their privacy policies, terms of services, security, and usability. They come with their strengths and weaknesses; also bear in mind that some might not come with a host of features that exists on WhatsApp.
Which options should I go for?
Sincerely, that’s a question only you can answer! In light of this piece, weigh out the pros and cons carefully. While it’s not wrong to try out other alternatives, you don’t want to run the risk of exposure by sharing some of your data with a new service. Doing your due diligence will make it easy for you to decide whether or not to keep WhatsApp, shift to Signal, Telegram, Seecrypt or even Threema.
ICT Clinic by CFA is published weekly in the Sunday Punch