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New WhatsApp Privacy Policy: Suspicion Heightens Despite Owner’s Assurance

The new privacy policy of popular messaging app, WhatsApp, has continued to generate debate among competitors, users, and governments. While WhatsApp owners have made it clear that the policy has nothing to do with breaching any contractual or privacy agreement between WhatsApp and its users, the Nigerian government is really doubting its sincerity of purpose.

The Federal Government through one of its agencies, the National Information Technology Development Agency, recently raised concerns over some additions to WhatsApp’s privacy policy.

This concern was contained in a statement titled “Whatsapp privacy policy changes: Implication for Nigerian users.”
Part of the statement which was signed by Hadiza Umar, the Head of Corporate Affairs and External Relations at NITDA reads:

“The National Information Technology Development Agency under Section 6 (f) of the NITDA Act 2007 wishes to provide this advisory to Nigerians to address Nigerian concerns on changes to Whatsapp Terms of Service and Privacy Policy which took effect on May 15, 2021.

“Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) recognises consent (a clear, unambiguous expression of privacy terms communicated by the controller and accepted by the Data Subject) as one of the lawful bases for data processing. Acceptance of the new privacy policy and terms of use implies that users data would now be shared with Facebook and other third parties.”

Although the statement acknowledged that Whatsapp users were free to decide whether they want to give their consent to the processing of their data based on the new privacy policy, NITDA urged Nigerians to explore other messaging platforms beyond Whatsapp and advised that sharing sensitive personal information on private messaging and social media platforms be limited, given WhatsApps affiliation to Facebook and its history with user data sharing.

WhatsApp had announced that it will slowly “crush” its messaging app with users refusing to accept the new terms and conditions before 15 May.

The disagreement on this new privacy policy began in January when WhatsApp hinted that it would share specific information with its parent company, Facebook.

WhatsApp said then that it would not be able to see the content of messages or calls, and neither could Facebook. It explained that the data would be used for commerce features and ads that open WhatsApp chats. Nevertheless, that still sparked a backlash from users, leav­­ing many to move to other apps like Signal, and Telegram.

Although WhatsApp relaxed the deadline for accepting the new policy, it is coming into force. It was still effective from May 15th for new users and for people who have already accepted the policy. The difference is that anyone who doesn’t accept the policy now will not lose full functionality immediately. Instead, they will be consistently shown a reminder to accept the new policy.

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That will equally change after several weeks when this reminder will become what WhatsApp is referring to as a “persistent reminder.” It is at this point that the app’s functionality will become limited. Although users will still be able to answer incoming calls and respond to messages by tapping on notifications, they won’t be able to access the standard chat list from within the app. Finally, after some additional weeks, users will finally lose those “limited functionality” entirely and would be counted as inactive accounts. WhatsApp says it generally deletes inactive accounts after 120 days.

Earlier, WhatsApp had taken a swipe at Telegram, the biggest winner from January’s backlash, saying that they understand some people may check out other apps to see what they have to offer: “we have seen some of our competitors try to get away with claiming they can’t see people’s messages—if an app doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default which means they can read your messages.”

Corroborating what the Federal Government said on this issue, security writer, Mike Thompson advises WhatsApp users to use an alternative platform if they take their own privacy seriously. He advocated for Signal instead. The reality, according to application security researcher, Sean Wright is, “if you can work on WhatsApp, you can work on Signal.”

In a tweet, Signal had said, “Big Techs know who your contacts are. Here at Signal, we know nothing.” This has been interpreted as a swipe at WhatsApp (and others) storing contact details, group names and login metadata outside the end-to-end encryption. Earlier, it taunted Facebook after CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s cell number, which was leaked in a Facebook breach, was linked to a Signal account.

“Forcing users to accept terms and conditions is something many of us are accustomed to when it comes to accessing and using apps on our devices,” ESET’s Jake Moore warns, “but what we are seeing here is verging on a serious intrusion on our privacy and trust that many will not be aware of.”

Ironically, this change of terms is coming on the heels of the latest escalation in the battle between Apple and Facebook.

iOS 14.5 is now live, with Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) also live on millions of devices. The interesting twist here is that the greatest threat to WhatsApp’s messaging dominance would have come from Apple’s own iMessage if the company had decided to offer the platform to android users as well, as it reportedly considered some years ago.

But Apple apparently took the view that this would undermine iMessage’s stickiness and exclusivity and so it remained Apple-only. iMessage itself (not SMS texts sent over iMessage) is more secure than WhatsApp, offering multiple end-to-end encrypted endpoints, encrypted backup equivalents (subject to a user’s settings) and now a sandbox.

Analysts say that WhatsApp and parent company, Facebook see iMessage as a threat. It boasts of more users in the U.S. as Zuckerberg acknowledged in January:

“We increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors. “iMessage is a key linchpin of their ecosystem—which is why iMessage is the most used messaging service in the U.S.”

In the words of WhatsApp CEO, Will Cathcart, “I use an android because if you look at WhatsApp’s user base, we are very android heavy… I really want to actually use the product in the way most people are using it, so I use an Android… You look at a place like the U.S., most people have an iPhone and the messaging experience works better on iMessage if everyone else has an iPhone.”

All these reinforce the speculation that iMessage is making a significant change with iOS 15 later this year to better compete with WhatsApp, somewhat interestingly timed.

Just as Facebook starts pulling WhatsApp’s strings on user terms, and as Apple turns the heat up on Facebook’s business model, iMessage appears to be targeting WhatsApp users with a more WhatsApp-like experience on android.

Meanwhile, for WhatsApp users delaying on clicking “accept,” then they have very limited choice using the app. If they wish to do as WhatsApp says, alternatives are out for checks.

For WhatsApp users, the reality is that this is just the beginning. The underlying platforms supporting Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram are gradually being integrated.

According to Cyjax CISO Ian Thornton-Trump, “Just think of the cost savings on development and support alone to run and support only one messaging application.

“The network effect is beginning to kick in, and even more of your contacts will now be on Signal, Telegram, and other WhatsApp rivals. The signal continues to grow rapidly, albeit it can’t analyze its traffic to understand where that growth is coming from because it has no data.”

Similarly, Telegram continues to secure large numbers of new installs. Both platforms are well set to benefit from WhatsApp backlash.

It is obvious that the foundations for changing the messaging landscape are already in place. Just as with WhatsApp’s own assault on SMS all these years, once the tipping point is reached, it is incredible how fast a messaging platform can grow.