This morning when I opened WhatsApp I was greeted with a disconcerting message. If I wanted to continue using the App I had to agree to their new terms of service. In other words, WhatsApp is shifting their goals again. They want me to agree to them spying on me more and share that data with their pervy friends at Facebook. The notice came with an arrogant ultimatum. I have until 8 February to agree to this egregious new arrangement or I will not be able to use WhatsApp. Talk about a slap in the face!
The early good old days
In its early days, WhatsApp was a benevolent niffy little app with promise. For the cost of U$1 for a year, you could use the app to send via the App to your friend. Unlike Econet et al, you could choose whether to send a video, picture or text message without paying some steep per message cost only for the data. The people behind the app also made some solemn promises too. They promised to never riddle the app with ads. Then Facebook happened.
As the app grew in popularity it caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg and his gang at Facebook. Zuckerberg is a professional peeping Tom who got rich by prying into the private data of Facebook user and capitalising on it. In 2014 or sometime prior to that he began to obsessively stalk WhatsApp using spyware apps such as Onavo and VPN. His apps told him that WhatsApp was fast outpacing Facebook’s own chat service-Messenger. So he bought WhatsApp for a staggering $19 billion US dollars. It’s money that would last the entire country of Zimbabwe four years based on our average budget of US$4 billion per year.
Everybody was worried and shockingly the US government approved the deal. They also approved Facebook’s purchase of Instagram by the way. Nobody spends that obscene amount of money on something without wanting something in return. At the time Facebook made some promises that were echoed by the original developers of WhatsApp.
Then from then on they went on to break everyone of those promises. At first it was behind the scene stuff then eventually they couldn’t hide it anymore. They changed to splash screen you see when you launch WhatsApp a few years ago. Now it says WhatsApp from Facebook. They have also expressed the desire to unite WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram Chat to make the in essence one big app.
But WhatsApp is encrypted you say
Everybody knows the big drawcard when it comes to WhatsApp is security. According to the company messages are now encrypted using end to end encryption. For the longest time this setup drew the ire of several Western governments that fumed over the fact that if terrorist chatted using the platform it intercepting the messages could be hard. Oddly enough there hasn’t been much such protests in recent years. Makes you wonder what happened right?
The thing is WhatsApp is a closed up service. We don’t have the source code to their apps in order to confirm that the company doesn’t actually have access to your chat messages. We can only take their word for it. The Israeli group NSO develops tools made specifically to break WhatsApp and they have successfully managed to do so over the years.
Even if Facebook does implement end to end encryption it doesn’t matter. While the chats themselves would certainly provide valuable data to the company that it can use to continue to grow its frightening global reach, it doesn’t really need the contents of your chats to do that. They just need the metadata. This includes things like your IP address, who to talk to and where you are located. When combined with Facebook’s other data they can easily know who you are, what you like and where you have been. They will know when you want to buy a toast before you even search for toasters online. Metadata is a pretty powerful thing but it you need other data in order to make it useful, the sort of data that Facebook has. Hence the ultimatum.
Where is the harm in that
Facebook has shown itself to be a company without morals. On multiple occasions in the not so distant past it has allowed the data it has access to to be weaponised in very creative ways with shocking consequences. There was the US election scandal that showed how the Russia government was able to leverage Facebook’s intimate knowledge to sow chaos and confusion in America, Leave groups in the UK were able to persuade people to choose anarchy and poverty over common search, there is the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The NSO group has also shown what can happen when corporate are allowed to do as they please. The group sells their wares even to thuggish regimes who then go on to use them to extend their hold and oppress their citizens. Your Facebook data might be harmless in isolation but when combined with that of millions of other people it can be surprisingly dangerous. Facebook has already shown that when allowed to do so they are willing to do anything for money. Imagine if your local government were to be privy of some of your posts. Or your boss was to somehow know that you think they are an arrogant turd? Frightening right?
The digital mafia
WhatsApp is like crack-cocaine or heroin. Like savvy drug dealers, WhatsApp was like a free sample in the good old days. You got it for free without ads or spying. All you had to pay was the very affordable price of US$1. In fact, if you lived in poor countries like Zimbabwe and couldn’t pay, they would waive payment, and your subscription would miraculously be extended for free.
Then we got hooked. WhatsApp is the internet in Zimbabwe, people don’t care that much about the rest of the internet, there are important business groups, businesses like Fresh in a box started on WhatsApp. Mobile network operators make millions selling WhatsApp bundles. Now the mafia has come for recovery. Like hapless addicts, we cannot live without their platform and can only cower, shiver and agree with the new outrageous terms.
The need for regulation and competition
In an ideal world, giant corporations could be left to their own devices. That’s what capitalism says we ought to do. They claim that if you don’t like existing businesses you can always enter the market with your own. Sadly the people who came up with such a system lived in a primitive world. Entities such as Facebook can easily stomp on the competition. In the US were they are based they can easily lobby their way out of trouble and drive legislation that decimates the competition and allow them to prosper.
However, if you burn too many bridges people start to get annoyed. While Facebook and Google were once considered the pride of America, now the tide has turned and this latest stunt is unlikely to go down well in the halls of power in America. Expect push back, tough regulation and possible forced splits.