Choosing Signal over WhatsApp is about personal agency

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Reframing the WhatsApp privacy debate

It is tempting to frame the discussion about WhatsApp’s privacy policy change that enables WhatsApp to share your profile data with Facebook (even though it’s been doing this for some time without being clear about this) as being about Facebook being able to read your WhatsApp messages.

That interpretation is incorrect. WhatsApp uses substantially the technology that you have in the Signal messaging app to protect the content of your WhatsApp messages.

What’s really happening here is that WhatsApp is sharing these categories of data about your messages, and about you with Facebook after initially promising that it would never do this:

What does WhatsApp say?

WhatsApp published a FAQ to explain what the privacy policy update really allows for in an attempt to dispel misconceptions that Facebook can now read your messages. The FAQ includes these two paragraphs that are arguably the rationale for the “change”:

Facebook hosting services: Messaging with businesses is different than messaging with your family or friends. Some large businesses need to use hosting services to manage their communication. Which is why we’re giving businesses the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts. But whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook. To make sure you’re informed, we clearly label conversations with businesses that are choosing to use hosting services from Facebook.

New commerce features: People increasingly want to be able to shop from businesses online. With Facebook branded commerce features like Shops, some businesses will display their goods right within WhatsApp so people can see what’s available to buy. If you choose to interact with Shops, your shopping activity can be used to personalize your Shops experience and the ads you see on Facebook and Instagram. Features like this are optional and when you use them we will tell you in the app how your data is being shared with Facebook.

WhatsApp FAQ – Answering your questions about WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy

Essentially, WhatsApp is saying that we users need to agree to share their information with Facebook so businesses can message us, if we choose to communicate with businesses via WhatsApp. So communicating with businesses is ostensibly optional.

WhatsApp also points out that this applies to your use of WhatsApp’s Shops feature too, if you choose to use the service.

Are we just being silly about this?

A couple tech commentators have said that this is all a lot of ado about nothing for a few reasons:

WhatsApp messages are secure, and encrypted

WhatsApp messages are encrypted, end to end. This means no-one other than you and the people you are messaging can see your message contents. This hasn’t changed, and this isn’t what this is really about.

As I explained above, this is about all the other data that you are required to hand over about you, your contacts, your location, how and when you use the app, and more.

It’s good that businesses can contact us using messaging apps

Sure, having a business send me a useful message that saves me time on hold, or in an endless support chat queue is great, if it happens. That’s not the end of the story, though.

Remember that if you do choose to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses, they can use your data to “use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook”. So this isn’t just about enabling businesses to send you messages, or receipts (for example).

At this point you may be thinking that if this is all optional, then that’s ok, except it’s not really. Remember that the WhatsApp pop-up says that if you don’t agree with this change, you may not use WhatsApp after 8 February 2021.

It’s also worth asking a couple different questions:

  1. Why does a business need all this data about me, my contacts, my location, and so on, just to send me messages about their business if I choose to message them first?
  2. Why do I need to agree to share all this data with Facebook in advance of me even deciding to message a business, or use the WhatsApp Shops service? Surely I can agree to share more data at the time, and then to the extent required?

Privacy is dead anyway

The old trope that privacy is dead, and you should get over it is a misnomer. It simplistically and falsely assumes that privacy is a binary choice –

  • Option 1: Expose expose yourself fully, and surrender totally to whichever service you use; or
  • Option 2: Turn off the Internet, and go live in a cabin in the woods.

Privacy is more than this. It is about taking back some personal agency, and making better choices about who can use our personal data. Your personal data has value to advertisers, political parties, and other companies that pay companies like Facebook, Google, and others for access to the data we give away for free.

Sure, Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t really mind one way or another if you like cats with no fur. Advertisers and other paying Facebook customers do, and they use all the data you share to target you with more specific ads for everything from cat food to who to vote for based on your fears and hopes.

Whether those targeted ads are truly helpful is a much bigger discussion.

For the purposes of this post, let’s just focus on whether you’re comfortable giving up any choice about how much of your data can be used for purposes you’re not really aware of. And, no, privacy policies are not helpful here. When’s the last time you read a privacy policy, and were totally clear about what it said?

So yes, privacy is not what we think it should be. That ship sailed when you created your first Facebook/Google/every other online account that encounters ads. What you still have is the ability to make some different choices, and take back some personal agency.

One commentator said the following:

If you’re so worried about privacy, shut down your internet because so long as you have cookies tracking your activity, and search engines knowing your every location, you can say buh bye to your privacy.

I disagree. You can choose a different –

  • search engine that doesn’t track everything about you. I like DuckDuckGo after switching over a couple months ago;
  • browser that blocks all those cookies, and delivers a much cleaner, and faster browsing experience. Try Firefox or Brave instead of Chrome;
  • messaging app like Signal, Telegram, or even Threema (if you want to go even further).

Don’t be shamed

Critics who push back against people’s desire for more personal agency, and privacy like to ridicule them because they’re not going with the flow.

Don’t allow critics to shame you because you make different choices. The critics have made their own choices, and their choices are not necessarily the best choice for you.

Make your own choices with confidence. That’s what it means to have personal agency.


Photo by Mauro Sbicego on Unsplash

By Paul

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at Automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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