By Swonshutaa Dash
Artwork by Tushar Madaan
From February 8th, 2021, WhatsApp will irrepressibly catalogue user data and the public will again witness the unrequited auction of our lives to data-hogging giants.
In 2016, WhatsApp began sharing specific user data, such as device and network identifiers, time spent on the app and frequency of using the app, and other such data, with Facebook, which was used mainly by Facebook to keep its user tracking and targeted advertising revenues afloat. Originally, the users were given an option to opt-out of the same, however, this option was removed post 30 days, after which WhatsApp has added more than a billion users, who were forcibly made to comply with data trade.
So what’s the big deal? And what is data mining anyway?
As a starting point, and for those of us born in a pre-facebook era, data mining is loosely defined like this: a process used to extract usable data from a larger set of any raw data. It implies analysing data patterns in large batches of data using one or more software. Data mining has applications in multiple fields, like science and research. As an application of data mining, businesses can learn more about their customers and develop more effective strategies related to various business functions and in turn leverage resources in a more optimal and insightful manner. If we haven’t lost you yet, let’s translate that into very simple terms. If one of you reads this post, and shares it with your ten closest friends, very little or nothing comes of it. You might notice a few more adverts for Signal pop up on your various internet jaunts. However, if 1,000 of you read, and then each of you share it with your 100 closest friends, and then they share it with each of their 100 closest friends, this starts to create a pattern large enough for data mining to pay attention. There might be increased targeted advertising, or in some cases, government intervention.
Data mining is not always a terrible thing, and it’s also not new - governments have used it to detect money laundering and criminal activity including hate groups. The downside to it, however, is significant and comes with hundreds of run-off effects. In this article though, we’ll just highlight three. In choosing to participate in this giant sociological cyber experiment, there is a possibility of data being misused or unethically used. How?
Number 1: vulnerable communities can be exposed, silenced, and/or targeted;
Number 2: targeted advertising can be used to manipulate public opinion at worst, or lower your personal benchmark for purchases at best; and
Number 3: housing all of this data makes companies incredibly liable and prone to data leaks, which can result in massive breaches of personal data privacy.
At the end of the day, it amounts to the trust we can place in companies, and for most of us, that trust is very limited, if it exists at all.
Bearing all of this in mind then, let’s bring this back to our current issue: what do we do about WhatsApp? WhatsApp, in compliance with its new terms, will share user chats with business accounts, with Facebook and will be facilitating the use of Facebook for communicating with customers. WhatsApp Business accounts will also be able to use Facebook’s Shops platform to display their products on WhatsApp, which will consequently be used for targeted advertising on Instagram and Facebook. Additionally, Facebook will soon allow you to message businesses using WhatsApp using a button on its platform.
WhatsApp in its defence updated its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section and highlighted the undermentioned points:
Whatsapp can not see your private messages or hear your calls and neither can Facebook.
WhatsApp does not keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling.
WhatsApp can not see your shared location and neither can Facebook
WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook
WhatsApp groups remain private
You can set your messages to disappear
You can download your data
One of the other major concerns of civilians is the recurrence of WhatsApp groups being visible in Google searches, yet again, after the problem had apparently been fixed in 2019. This has led to easier access to user profiles and contact numbers on the web. By searching for country codes on WhatsApp's domain, the URLs of people’s profiles could be surfaced, which included phone numbers and profile pictures. Although WhatsApp had included the non-index tag on its deep link pages, since March 2020, cybersecurity researchers criticized this move for being temporary and insufficient for data protection. An additional fallacy that was brought to light was the absence of robot.txt files on these deep link pages as well as the WhatsApp web domain, which prevents search engines from crawling related links. Despite being a huge blow that WhatsApp might lead to data security, it will most likely remain the most used chatting software in the near future.
So apparently we’re all participating in some giant cyber-Sapiens experiment. What now?
As this David and Goliath style battle of the tech gods plays out in the ether, many of us are parked on our couch (as we have been for the better parts of the past 12 months) watching ping after ping light up our phone with the inevitable notification from yet another of our contacts - “Hi, I’m moving to Signal” plus or minus a few pleasantries. And we find ourselves surveying this uncharted digital territory in between the pings, wondering cosmic connection ensues, it is imperative to step into uncharted territory only after thoroughly analyzing the map.
‘Is Signal good enough and does it have the capacity to function at par with WhatsApp? Is my data safe? Can I transfer my chats? Will they have an adequate facepalm emoji? You know, all the important stuff.
Signal is also a messaging app that uses the same encryption protocol such as WhatsApp, and it is open-source, which allows any security researcher to scrutinize its code for flaws and verify that the encryption is as secure as Signal claims. You can send text and audio messages to individuals or groups, and make one-on-one voice or video calls over the internet or a data connection. Everyone involved must be on Signal. There are mobile apps for Android, iPhone, and iPad, as well as desktop apps for Mac, Windows, and Linux. There is no support for Chrome OS on Chromebooks. Over the past year, the app has added a number of fun features, including GIFs, stickers, and emoji reactions. (Signal Stickers is a large repository of community-made designs.) How does the end-to-end encryption work? Encryption turns your messages and calls into a string of gibberish. Only the intended recipient is able to decrypt the message—no one else, not even the app’s maker.
While several entities on the web may claim that you can transfer your WhatsApp chats to signal, it is not possible. On 8 January 2021, the app tweeted the best alternative that they could provide.
“A lot of people have been asking how to move their group chats from other apps to Signal, and Signal group links are a great way to get started. Drop a group link into your former chat app of choice like you're dropping the mic on the way out.”- @signalapp
We’re all for mic-dropping, but where do we go once the mic hits the ground?
We take our mic-dropping seriously. It’s even in our insta description. And everyone who drops a mic knows you can’t just drop the thing and then continue standing there, so what exit are we supposed to take? And how do we know which is the best one?
Zoho, the Indian SaaS (Software as a Service), a bit of a bootstrapped unicorn in its own right, is set to launch its own messaging app called Arattai, which is Tamil for chit-chat, is India’s answer to WhatsApp. Zoho’s formal launch of Arattai, which is likely to be rolled out in a few weeks, comes when people are questioning WhatsApp’s new privacy policies and have been switching to other messaging apps like Signal and Telegram.
The ground is shifting from under our feet as we prepare for a probable farewell to our comrade WhatsApp. In India, the exit of WhatsApp serves as a platform for the introduction and promotion of indigenous social media applications such as Trell, Tooter, Squad Cam et cetera, which facilitates the much-needed economic boost that India requires. The question remains- how will India act on this opportunity? As it turns out, only time (and/or data mining) can tell.
About the author
Swonshutaa Dash is a student from Mumbai, India. She is an aspiring journalist and a trained professional Bharatnatyam dancer and debate enthusiast. Follow her blog on @feat.stressedkanya on Instagram for more!