Africa: WhatsApp Has Been Mining Your Data All Along

The messaging application's updated privacy policy has users crying foul and jumping ship. But they are just telling you what they have already been doing.

Global messaging application WhatsApp made headlines when it released a controversial privacy policy update that triggered an exodus of users to rival messaging platforms.

The update to WhatsApp's terms of service and privacy policy informed users that they would have to agree to the new policy by 8 February 2021 to continue using the service. WhatsApp planned to share its users' data with parent company Facebook, fuelling widespread outrage.

While many users assumed this meant Facebook wanted access to their personal messages with friends, colleagues and family members, this is not the data Facebook is after. What it wants to share is something called metadata.

Metadata can include your phone type and model, the operating system it uses, your battery or signal strengths, what mobile network you subscribe to, what language you speak, as well as your location and contact list. It can also include data such as how many times a week you message a particular person or how many times a day you are actively engaged on WhatsApp.

Many users, it seems, were unaware that Facebook and WhatsApp had actually begun the process of sharing data back in September 2016. Any user who joined WhatsApp after the end of September 2016 has already had their data shared with Facebook and those who joined before that date would only be exempt from the data sharing if they had ticked an opt-out box available for only 30 days.

"I feel that people are losing their heads over something that has always been the case," says Natasha Msonza, an information technology security expert. Msonza says what is important about the new policy update is that it establishes the terms governing the use of metadata, which enable Facebook to sell more targeted adverts.

"The updated terms simply ask us to consent to this although they have already been doing it," she says. "It puts the company in the clear legally."

Protecting personal information

Pansy Tlakula, the chair of the Information Regulator South Africa (IRSA), says that "on the face of it", WhatsApp's recently updated terms of service and privacy policy "looks problematic".

"But we don't want to just jump in," she says. "We want a sober analysis of the updated policy."

Tlakula says the IRSA has already contacted Facebook and is analysing the updated policy to see whether it is compliant with the country's Protection of Personal Information Act (Popi). The act was approved by Parliament in 2013 and has been promulgated in various stages between 2014 and 2019.

Tlakula says Popi, which aims to protect South African citizens' privacy, was modelled on the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which exempts European citizens from the updated WhatsApp policy. Tlakula says that if the GDPR exempts Europeans then Popi should exempt South Africans.

"One of the things we want to look at is the metadata that WhatsApp wants to collect," she says.

While South Africa's Competition Commission had no comment when asked about the WhatsApp policy update, the response from the Turkish government has been swift. Five days after WhatsApp updated its terms of service, the Turkish Competition Board announced it had launched an investigation into WhatsApp and Facebook.

The board said the two companies should suspend their data collection until the probe is complete.

When Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 it told the European Union's antitrust authorities during its review of the merger that the two companies would remain separate products. It insisted it was technically impossible to combine WhatsApp data with its other services.

But in 2016, Facebook released an update that raised the possibility of linking accounts from both platforms, which resulted in a $122 million fine by the European Commission in 2017 for providing "incorrect" and "misleading" information to the authorities during the 2014 review. Facebook said the information it provided to the commission had been, to its knowledge, correct at the time.

It has been suggested in a number of media reports that the integration of WhatsApp and Facebook played a role in the departure of WhatsApp founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum from Facebook in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Acton launched the Signal Foundation in 2018, the non-profit behind messaging app Signal.

Boost for Signal and Telegram

What Facebook's intentions for WhatsApp were in 2014 are now irrelevant. The new policy update makes it clear that Facebook intends increasingly to integrate the two companies.

A WhatsApp account and a Facebook account may have once been two separate entities, but that is changing. As The Guardian's technology editor Alex Hern recently argued, "If you're a WhatsApp user, you're a Facebook customer."

Before the policy update, WhatsApp had 2 billion users. Rival messaging service Telegram had 400 million users and Signal sat on 200 million, a mere 20% and 10% respectively of WhatsApp's base.

But the backlash against WhatsApp's policy update has been severe. Compared to the previous week, Signal saw a whopping 4 200% increase in new users with 7.5 million downloads between 6 and 10 January, while Telegram saw a 91% increase with 9 million downloads in the same period.

Prominent businesspeople from around the world have urged consumers to switch to the other messaging services. Indian businessman Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the chief executive of Paytm, tweeted that WhatsApp and Facebook were "abusing their monopoly" and taking "users' privacy for granted", while Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey both spoke out against the WhatsApp privacy update.

The backlash from South African consumers is also plainly evident. If you had checked the Samsung Play Store in South Africa or the Apple App Store in the days before the policy update you would have found WhatsApp in second place, only trailing the country's Covid-19 app in the top downloads. Telegram sat in 58th and 64th position on the two app stores, and Signal didn't even make the top 100.

A week later, Telegram is at number one in the charts with Signal just behind it in second place. WhatsApp has dropped from second to fourth and seventh place on the two charts.

Msonza says that although WhatsApp's messaging system is encrypted, there is really no way of knowing if there are any backdoors that enable the company to collect more than just metadata.

"On this basis alone, it may be wise for privacy-conscious people to use different, perhaps open-source platforms, especially for communicating sensitive information," she says. "The struggle may be in getting loved ones, especially the elderly, to move along."

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