#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 7°C Saturday 8 May 2021

If you use Whatsapp, your data is about to become the property of Facebook

Julien Mercille explains how you can take steps to protect your data.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

DO YOU USE WhatsApp? If so, some of your data will soon be transferred to Facebook, whether you want it or not. Anybody who cares about privacy should consider switching to the messaging app Signal.

Two years ago, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion and has now seriously undermined its privacy commitments. The Electronic Freedom Foundation wrote that WhatsApp’s new policy “lays the groundwork for alarming data sharing between WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook”.

Facebook will gain access to important pieces of your WhatsApp information, such as your phone number, list of contacts, and usage data (when you last used WhatsApp, on which device you used it on, etc.).

WhatsApp is trying to make the policy change look benign and hard for users to opt out of certain aspects of it.

Indeed, you may have noticed WhatsApp recently asking you to agree to the terms of its new policy, which it says will “improve your Facebook ads and products experiences”. There is a way to partially opt out but it requires a few steps.

Unwanted advertising

Basically, you need to click on the small print link and then uncheck a box, as this concise guide shows. If you choose to keep using WhatsApp, you should definitely do this. The fact that WhatsApp and Facebook are making it complicated to prevent them from using your data should make you wonder what they will end up doing with it.

You’re only given the choice to prevent Facebook from using the information to send you relevant ads and make friend recommendations to you.

Even if you opt out of that, WhatsApp will still pass on your information to Facebook, as a WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed:

The Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities.

Metadata vulnerable

One could counter that WhatsApp is still a good app because it uses end-to-end encryption, which means that all messages you send and receive are protected. This is true and is indeed a good thing. It prevents governments and spies from reading the content of the messages you send or receive. Even WhatsApp (or Facebook) cannot see their content.

However, the message metadata can be seen. This refers to information such as who are the sender and the recipient. This information can be given to governments, just like your contact list.

This is not just a hypothetical situation. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has recently announced moves to give the State new powers to intercept our social media messages, including WhatsApp, Facebook and email messages.

The new proposals are pitched in terms of combating crime, but it is not hard to imagine that they could also be used to spy on activists such as water charge protesters.

There is another big problem with WhatsApp: by default, it allows your messages to be backed up to the cloud by your phone. When on the cloud (on your Google account or iCloud account), their contents can be seen (the end-to-end encryption only works when the messages are actually sent to the recipient over the internet). You can, and should, disable this back up feature, but it’s yet another step that many people won’t take.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Advice: don’t use Whatsapp

There is an easy solution to those problems: for sensitive conversations, don’t use WhatsApp. Use Signal instead.

The app can be downloaded on the Android Play Store or the iPhone App Store.

Signal is an app that works the same way as WhatsApp, but gives you much better protection. Signal also uses end-to-end encryption but it doesn’t store metadata, nor does it backup your messages to your Google or iCloud account. Even if Signal itself wanted to access this data, it couldn’t—their system is set up in such a way that they don’t have the key to the data.

Therefore, if a government asked Signal that it hands over the content or the metadata of your messages, or your contact list, Signal cannot hand it over. And if that government asks Google or Apple for the backups of your messages, there will be nothing there either.

The main downside of Signal is that it is not used by as many people as WhatsApp, so a lot of your friends might not be on it. But for confidential communications, and to preserve your privacy, it’s well worth convincing them to install the app.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin.

About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

Read next: