The executives, however, reiterated that WhatsApp was “committed to safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms”.
The meeting took place at a time when the security of user data has come under intense public scrutiny.
It has been assured that WhatsApp will not share its data with Facebook and that all conversations, photos, documents, video calls are end-to-end encrypted.
Most of the policy changes will reflect on business accounts in WhatsApp.
Metadata, such as IP address, OS, phone model and screen resolution, will be shared with Facebook. If the user avoids interacting with a business account, no data other than the metadata will be shared with Facebook.
The distrust lies primarily with Facebook, considering its recent record of safeguarding user data.
WhatsApp will now collect greater amounts of data, including time, frequency and duration of interactions. Interactions with businesses will be sold to third parties to supply targeted advertising.
Moreover, data collected by WhatsApp will be shared with Facebook and other Facebook companies to design their products and improve services. This was an option the user could opt out of but now there is no choice. These changes, however, do not impede on the end-to-end encryption of personal messages.
There has been much misinformation about these changes, leading to WhatsApp having to defer the mandatory implementation of the policy by three months until the company can regain some public trust.
The implementation is scheduled to take place in May, after which users will be given a choice between accepting the new policies or discard WhatsApp entirely.
But to say that this is all WhatsApp has done and there is nothing to worry about is misleading. The “metadata” which is being collected from WhatsApp along with other cache data across Instagram and Facebook to provide a better, smoother experiences across the suite of products Facebook offers would be the official stance of the company, but what we must be concerned about is how the metadata that is being collected may in the future also include the number of phone calls, group names, profile photos and such present in one’s phone.
With the current policy, it seems that global corporations such as Facebook that have acquired a monopoly on a certain market, in Facebook’s case, of communication technology can enact profit-oriented policies designed to intrude upon the privacy of the user, which is already in a fragile state.
For India, WhatsApp has become a public utility. Messaging friends, calling family, reviewing work documents, verifying identification buying groceries — everything takes place on this single app downloaded by more than 400 million Indians. Moreover, it is free, making WhatsApp a part of daily life for any Indian who owns a smartphone with an Internet connection.
WhatsApp’s blunt handling of the terms of acceptance of the new policy, where one has to agree to the terms of service or stop using WhatsApp entirely came as a rude surprise to many.
WhatsApp may not be completely intruding upon our personal data currently, but in the future it might, if not subjected to harsh criticism and scrutiny as it is today.
Facebook should find a better, less intrusive way to “smoothen user experience”. Even if it is strictly related to advertising, if an individual uses both Instagram and Facebook then the company already has enough data to provide targeted advertisements. A communication between two individuals should not be used to direct advertisements at the user.
Ultimately, this will fall on deaf ears, and Indians will either have to agree to the new policy, or be cut off from WhatsApp entirely, and consequently, most of India too.
At the time of the pandemic that engulfed the world into crisis, data collection algorithms accelerated the process of locating hot spots of infection and vulnerable zones, helping the authorities manage the pandemic more effectively than conventionally head hunting to determine who is infected and who is not.
Several online applications such as Aarogya Setu in India and TraceTogether in Singapore are examples of how data collection algorithms can be used for the common good but whose other uses can raise questions.
Big data follows us everywhere. There is an explosion in the field of services aimed towards maximising productivity in the workplace, where workers are closely monitored on the basis of their performance.
Big data ruthlessly exploits the individual of its basic privacy and commodifies the data collected from the individual into a product to be sold to other companies for profit. The continuing unethical use of technology by large corporations cannot go unnoticed. Too many things are at stake for the price of profit. It is time we take cognizance of this and start limiting how much data corporations can mine out of us. It is an unacceptable violation of individual privacy, even if it is virtual.
Simran Hisaria is an overseas intern at The Independent SG. /TISG
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