The chase for digital privacy
WhatsApp’s recent policy update on sharing personal data such as the phone numbers of users and their contacts with owner of the platform, Facebook, has sparked concern amongst its users and, subsequently, a flurry of media coverage.
This has led to a wave of migration of users from WhatsApp to other messaging platforms like Telegram or Signal. This has raised several questions and here, we give our perspective on the news.
What will WhatsApp share with Facebook?
Chats between WhatsApp users are encrypted, and this has been one of its biggest selling points in recent times. What this means in practice is that no one outside of those in the chat can gain access to the content of messages – even Facebook/WhatsApp can’t read them. However, moving forward WhatsApp will share some data with Facebook including your phone number and contacts, profile names and pictures, and diagnostic data.
For now, there should not be a cause of concern about private WhatsApp conversations being harvested for data to use for ads or other purposes by Facebook and its large family of platforms. The update reads largely as a clarification of how it already operates, with Facebook insisting that European users will see no change to the existing data sharing practices where data is not shared to improve its product or advertisements. WhatsApp has since put up a page clarifying the full details here.
What is driving WhatsApp to update its policy?
WhatsApp has added new features that allow people to communicate with businesses. As these messages may be stored and managed by Facebook, the conversations could be shared with these companies more generally.
From what we understand, users should be informed if that happens. When speaking to a business that has decided to have its messages managed by Facebook, a message should appear to alert the user. This means that the user can decide whether to stop talking to that business if they would prefer not to share that information.
Will this mean the end of WhatsApp?
This update will have an impact on WhatsApp. When Facebook announced in 2010 that it was making changes to its privacy policies to launch its Open Graph API that allowed the platform to provide instant personalisation, there was similar outrage. That announcement sparked an exodus of users with some attempting open-source social networks such as Diaspora while others proceeded to delete their accounts. A decade later, as recent as November 2020, Facebook reports over 2.7 billion monthly active users (or more than 4x the number of active users in 2010). We could argue that this is due to a lack of viable competition, but we can also probably agree that users have largely accepted the fact that a free platform that allows them to connect with their network is going to need some support from ads.
What will this mean for businesses and users?
If users continue to embrace multiple platforms, it can only mean that we will all be forced to manage more applications on our devices. Already, many of us have multiple messaging apps including WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, WeChat, Line, Teams, Slack, LinkedIn, Telegram, Signal, Skype – the list goes on. Unless your network of friends has largely consolidated on one platform, this will continue to be the case.
It’s unrealistic for businesses to be available or accessible on every platform, and unfortunately the large number of platforms will force companies to continually monitor the changing landscape, seeking guidance when evaluating the merits of the various platforms as their business goals evolve.
Is privacy a realistic goal?
It helps to look at this question from a businesses’ perspective. The term ‘there are no free lunches’ springs to mind here. Quite simply, a platform can only continue operating and evolving if it is able to pay the bills. Unless users commit to paying for a messaging app (and one that everyone agrees with), platforms will always look for avenues to monetise their data and user base as they grapple with the large bills in supporting the messaging needs for millions or billions of users.
The question on privacy (at least for messaging apps) becomes a moving goal post, one that is determined by two factors: how much data platforms need to monetise to keep the lights on, and what amount or type of data users willing to concede in order to continue using such platforms for free.
Targeted ads or free usage of platforms?
Businesses will invest in platforms that provide a business benefit to them. For messaging, this can be broadly summarised as follows: reach, ability to engage with potential or existing customers, cost effectiveness and ease of business. These provide clues on what data will be valuable to the platform.
The ability for relevant ads to be shown is highly sought after by advertisers. That said, the market has made its views on such data use very clear. A good reference is Google. Users seem willing to concede personal data depending on the type of activities they conduct on Google’s various platforms. When it comes to communications, the market has signalled its resistance. In 2017, Google announced several ways it would protect privacy and ended its previous practice of scanning email contents of individual Gmail users for advertising purposes. On the other hand, the majority of users seem accepting to Google harvesting personal data from its other products (e.g., personal search data) to show targeted ads.
Based on the specifics of this update, we believe most users will find it acceptable once they really understand what is involved. Communications, ironically, will determine how successful WhatsApp will be in retaining its userbase.
Will other messaging platforms follow suit?
As described earlier, the userbase is the lifeblood of these platforms. The ability to monetise the userbase will be the goal of every free-to-use messaging platform. As it is most similar to WhatsApp, it will be interesting to monitor how the monetisation plans of Telegram (announced December 23rd) will perform. That will provide important clues to help answer the question posed earlier: What is the real cost of our online privacy? For now, the debate rages on as to what our online messaging privacy is worth.
If you would like to discuss how this change can impact your business, please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org