The Great Whatsapp Stink: Q&A

The Great Whatsapp Stink inspired many excellent questions from readers. As they roll in, I’ll post my responses here. Special thanks to F.R. for an inspiring email exchange.

My Whatsapp contacts already have my number and all my old messages, how does that affect my privacy after I leave?

On Whatsapp you have to trust that all your contacts don’t share your messages – just as you would have to on Signal. Neither Whatsapp nor Signal have access to the content of your messages.

In that regard, nothing changes and there is no difference between the apps – it’s only a difference in how they implement the security. (And all the research I’ve done says that Whatsapp’s implementation is fundamentally less secure.)

If you delete your account, then I believe that – yes – your Whatsapp contacts would still be able to download your messages, unless you delete them, either individually or: WhatsApp Settings > Chats > Delete All Chats.

I haven’t done this yet, so would have to check how much sender’s data remains on the device of the recipient. Hopefully nothing but downloaded media – photos, videos, voice notes, etc.

If I delete Whatsapp, but my contacts don’t or can’t, will I still suffer indirect surveillance? If so, is my leaving the system worthwhile when the system never leaves me?

You’re right: you can leave the system, but the system never leaves you. Unfortunately, this is true even of people who have never ever had a Whatsapp or Facebook account, but who are still touched by Facebook’s web surveillance: pages with like buttons, for example.

There is no escape from that level of data collection – except by using a technique like browser isolation, which makes the data functionally useless (you could even generate deliberately misleading data if you’ve got loads of time on your hands!).

Will we be vulnerable to indirect surveillance after we’ve left Whatsapp? I don’t know exactly. I would also guess, given that no one seems to be able to find a definitive answer online, that no one knows exactly!

It’s worth repeating that Whatsapp only collects our metadata (so far as we know). Furthermore, for those of us who live in the EU, UK or other territories with half-decent privacy laws, that metadata is not matched with our Facebook profile data.

Regardless of what happens to the data held by your contacts after you delete Whatsapp, the biggest benefit of deleting the platform is that you will no longer be adding to that data the corporation hold on you. I think this is an important point, perhaps overlooked.

For example: if you’ve been regularly messaging from a device located in Berlin, then Whatsapp could make a guess that you live in Berlin – and they will continue to hold that data even after you delete the platform. But if, one day, you move to Brussels, then that old data will become as good as useless. No (further) harm done.

My view is that taking even one conversation out of Whatsapp and over to Signal is worthwhile progress. A tiny chip in the wall, maybe, but still worthwhile.

What do I gain from leaving Whatsapp?

This depends whether you think your metadata is a fair exchange for a ‘free’ messaging app. Do you mind Whatsapp having access to your metadata and using that to sell stuff to you and your contacts? Especially bearing in mind that this is part of a long-term business plan for Whatsapp.

At the moment, Whatsapp is not profitable for Facebook: they simply have to earn more money from Whatsapp and they will do that by selling user data. Both the original founders of Whatsapp quit (in 2017 and 2018) because of concerns over privacy, security, advertising and the sale of user data by Facebook.

This is the direction Whatsapp is going and I don’t want to stay with it to find out what happens next. So my answer to this question is that our metadata is clearly not a fair exchange for a messaging app, given that an excellent alternative exists.

Signal was setup by one of the original Whatsapp founders as a direct repost to what he saw as a betrayal of the app’s values. Signal is a not-for-profit, open source organisation and can never be bought by a capitalist engine like Facebook.

Everyone is already on Whatsapp so shouldn’t we should concentrate on better privacy regulation?

I accept that there are many users on Whatsapp – 2 billion worldwide – but I don’t accept that this means we shouldn’t all install Signal (as well as Whatsapp if need be). That’s like arguing that, because there are over a billion fossil fuel cars worldwide, we shouldn’t install charging points for electric cars.

It’s not an either/or problem. Yes, we should legally prevent corporations from exploiting our data AND yes, we should install and use platforms that don’t (and can’t) exploit our data.

Aren’t you forgetting all the people who need Whatsapp for important, even life-saving, services?

Firstly, I have no problem with people keeping their Whatsapp accounts, whether that’s because they need it to communicate with their doctors or because they simply love the app. I’d just like to help more people understand the Facebook business model and, based on that understanding, install an alternative that opens up the space. Every conversation switched onto a secure platform is a win.

For many people, Whatsapp and Signal will work in tandem, exactly as Brian Acton, founder of both companies, himself imagines:

I have no desire to do all the things that WhatsApp does. My desire is to give people a choice. It’s not strictly a winner take-all scenario.

I also have no problem with installing and drifting between several messaging apps. I’ve got 89 apps installed on my smartphone; another one doesn’t make any difference to me. For some overwhelmed people, I’m sure, one more app feels like one too many. I’d still like to convince them otherwise, but they have every right to tell me to shut up!

I’m also lucky that I’m not tightly bound to Whatsapp. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of my contacts switching to Signal, enough to make me believe that, for me, leaving Whatsapp permanently is an option. I’m surprised, gratified – and certain that I’m far from typical.

Even with 80 percent of my contacts on Signal, I’m still not sure that I’ll delete Whatsapp. My life might not depend on Whatsapp, but some of my volunteering work does. Naturally, I see no reason why these volunteering groups shouldn’t also migrate, either to Signal or to some other more appropriate, non-surveillance tool, but I’m aware that the migration won’t be easy. It will depend on people like me making a strong case for privacy and that case may well fail. But it must be made.

These conversations and conversions might be uncomfortable, but they are impossible unless we take that first step to install Signal or other alternatives. The transition away from the surveillance economy will be a lengthy process, especially when we consider the legal fight for stronger privacy regulation, but I believe that we now have momentum.

Switching apps is egotistical!

This misses the point. My argument is that mass migration away from Whatsapp isn’t merely good for the individual (I’m not actually convinced that it makes a huge difference for most individuals, depending on how they use the app and which country they live in), but it is good for the entire user base and – given that the user base makes up a quarter of the planet – also good for our societies as a whole.

Quick aside: how it could all go horribly wrong

No one in China uses Whatsapp. Access is totally blocked. The popular equivalent is an app called WeChat. Where surveillance at Whatsapp is covert, WeChat is subject to overt censorship. Dan Wang, an expert on technology in China, recently wrote:

WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes ‘decoupling’ and ‘sanctions’. It’s now pretty inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead.

I’m not saying that this is the direction that Whatsapp is going in, but why should we even leave that roadmap on the table?

Back to the question

Fundamentally, the question is: why wouldn’t you install Signal, if only to offer a non-capitalist, non-surveillance alternative to those of your friends and contacts who prefer – or need – that approach for their communication?

For those of us lucky enough to live in countries protected by decent (ish) privacy laws, we are (seemingly) safe from further exploitation of our Whatsapp metadata by the rest of the Facebook corporation. But, by not installing Signal, we are exposing our unprotected contacts in the rest of the world to an unsafe platform for their communication with us.

Or we are ignoring them altogether. China is not the only country where Whatsapp is banned: North Korea, Syria, Qatar, Iran and United Arab Emirates have also blocked access to the app. We need alternatives.

Sticking rigidly to one platform: now that sounds egotistical to me.

~

What do you think? Send me your questions or comments. Thank you for reading!

Published by

David

David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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