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It's time to finally get rid of WhatsApp

Facebooks data machine is becoming even more hungry

In the Netherlands you can’t really function without WhatsApp. Its generification - using a brand name for all similar products - has been going on for a while. When someone says “Ik app je wel” - literally translated to “I’ll app you” - they mean that they’ll send you a message using Whatsapp.

I remember the first time I installed it, It must have been somewhere in 2010. Back then, I was in high school, somewhere in my final years there. Having internet in your phone plan was something that was available back then, but not really affordable for most people, and text messages were also quite expense for the volume an average teenager would like to send. So when an app became available that you could send free texts with, it wasn’t that long before the entire school was available on WhatsApp. First installed on my iPod touch, it later also became available on android devices.

Facebook became popular a bit before that in the Netherlands under the younger people. Hyves.nl was the popular social media before that - now a defunct website only featuring really bad games - but with all the parents of classmates and generally older people also creating accounts on Hyves, most Dutch teenagers fled to Facebook to avoid having their parents follow them digitally.

In june 2013, a Facebook bug made it possible to download an archive of your account, including private contact information from your friends like email addresses and phone numbers. At this point, I already started becoming more privacy and security aware, and several months before the bug was made public, joined an online group where data hungry online businesses were discussed. The tools to make exports of your data - when they were not required by EU law yet - were already present, and were an excellent method to gain insight into the inner workings of companies where the users are the products, not the customers. The extent of the data you could export back then - both at Google and Facebook - made me switch to another Dutch email provider and quit my Facebook account. Not long after the bug was officially reported and a bug bounty was reported, the forum shut down. The realisation that these bugs could make a lot of money when reported - which none of us did - probably launched a lot of peoples’ white hat careers, just as it did mine.

Since then I’ve made two attempts to leave WhatsApp. The first time was back in 2014, when it was made public that Facebook had bought WhatsApp. Knowing the data hunger and unethical practices, I wanted as little to do with Facebook as possible. But motivating other people, especially friends who are not tech-savvy, is quite the task, and was the reason I created a WhatsApp account again just a few weeks later.

Back then, messages were not end-to-end encrypted, but when e2e encryption was introduced in 2016 and immediately after that the privacy policy was updated again to share more data with Facebook, I attempted to leave WhatsApp again. All my best friends have been on Signal since then, but when I started a new job I felt left out again on the company conversations, so rejoined, this time after more than half a year without WhatsApp.

This time, things are different. Even though the privacy update of february 8th will not have any direct implications in the EU because of the GDPR, the way Facebook is making a statement regarding integrating all its messaging services is scary. Just like other social media bought by Facebook, the “By Facebook” slogan is creeping into several locations in the app, and it’s clear what Facebook is trying to accomplish; Integrating all their messaging services into one.

This might not seem such a big deal initially, but a scary picture emerges when you look at the details;

Facebook, Facebook messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp all have strayed further and further away from the purpose of their initial applications. Last October, Whatsapp announced they would also make it possible to sell products right from chats for example. When Apple introduced the privacy labels in the app store, Facebook was one of the most vocal companies about it, defending the extensive access of data it requires by mentioning its upcoming shopping functionalities. Seems like the perfect excuse when you are caught requesting a lot more data then needed, right? Despite their unrepairable phones and shady practices, I keep liking Apple more and more because of the way they handle privacy, and I really like the new privacy labels. But they also give some very scare insights, worth to take a look at:

WhatsApp privacy labels overview
WhatsApp privacy labels overview

This overview of privacy labels gives a good insight into what specific data an app like WhatsApp has access to. I won’t go into why certain labels are duplicate acrosse categories, but know that it is possible and not an error. This is quite the set of data categories already, right? Now let’s look at what I think WhatsApp will move to when the backends eventually get merged. We don’t know if and when this will happen, but it will probably look very similar to the current Facebook messenger app, “Facebook Messenger”:

Facebook messenger privacy labels overview
Facebook messenger privacy labels overview

Tip: because there is a lot of data to be displayed you could open this image in another tab or zoom in. Scary, right?

There is an alternative, one that has been available for years, and that is used by journalists for contacting confidential sources, and even hackers to communicate. If you don’t want companies to use you as their product, download Signal!

Signal privacy labels overview
Signal privacy labels overview

The amount of privacy labels is very reassuring. That doesn’t say anything about the security of their servers though, but with the way they handle things I have a lot of confidence that all you secrets are safe here. You can even send messages that will automatically be deleted after a certain amount of time. You probably wonder how they earn money with a free service if you are not the product. Just like Wikipedia, Signal is DonationWare, primarily depending on large donors. So if you have some spare change, please donate here!

Don’t take my word for it btw, these privacy labels are publicly visible on the iOS app store for WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Signal under the section “App Privacy”.

Currently, in countries where the new policy changes will take effect at february 8th - like Turkey and the USA - mass migrations are taking place from WhatsApp, so now is the perfect time to switch. But if you can’t convince all your friends to switch - a hard job - at least make sure everyone installs Signal so the switch isn’t that hard for people who do want to migrate - like me and many other privacy aware people. And most importantly, spread the word, make people aware of the fact that they are treated as a product!

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