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What the new WhatsApp Privacy Policy is all about and what it means for you

whatsapp-communications

It was January 2007 when Steve Jobs officially announced the 1st Generation iPhone. At the time, there’s no doubt that he foresaw how the newly created concept of smartphone applications would become part of our everyday life. Fast forward a decade and we now have apps for literally everything, from trackable maps to online shopping, online banking to instant messaging. 

And it is the instant messaging that completely changed the way we communicate back in 2009 when WhatsApp was founded. It’s greatest benefit was the fact it was free for all users and quickly became the most dominant way of communicating, meaning the text messages of the early 2000’s were eliminated. It’s popularity caused Mark Zuckerberg to showcase an interest in this globally popular app and in 2014, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. 

Now used by over 2 billion people in over 180 countries, the app’s success has been due to its one unique selling point: message encryption. This feature changed the game and made WhatsApp stand apart from the likes of SMS and other apps on the market. SMS messages were considered “unsecured technology” and as more and more people became aware of their privacy rights, it’s no surprise that WhatsApp soon became the go-to option. However, it is due to privacy updates in WhatsApp’s new Privacy Policy that has caused an online storm over the past few weeks.

What does the new WhatsApp privacy policy say?

First of all, it is important to clarify that messages sent via WhatsApp are still secure and encrypted. 

The new WhatsApp policy, initially due to come into action on 8th February 2021, has now been postponed until 15th May and is only related to the way users communicate with other firms via WhatsApp. Over the past few years, more and more businesses have integrated the messaging app as a means of communication with their customers and it is here that the sharing of information between WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook is being updated. 

Confused? I’ll break it down into three areas:

Customer Service – Companies might be using Facebook servers and, when customers communicate via the app, the chat will be labelled with information for the user on the privacy policy and they will be able to decide if to proceed or use a traditional tool like a phone call or email.

Ads – Ads on the social platform will be tailored based on your online behaviour, same as it already happens for many other websites. The only difference is that Facebook will also be able to customize them by checking if the users interacted with a business via WhatsApp.

Shopping – Some businesses have a shop function on Facebook but also on their WhatsApp profile. The connection of the services requires a sharing of information between the apps but it’s important to note that the user will be informed of how their data is being shared.

Are there alternatives to WhatsApp?

Since the announcement of the updated Privacy Policy, many wondered if it was time to switch to another instant messaging app. It comes after many companies have been highlighted in the media for obtaining data and selling it onto 3rd party companies without the user knowing or understanding where their data was going. The skepticism around the sharing of personal data has been more prevalent on communicative apps, mostly the likes of social media. So when the new WhatsApp terms and conditions stated users’ data will be shared with Facebook, there were a few raised eyebrows.

The key point to remember is that the new rules will apply exclusively to communications with businesses and that messages are still fully encrypted. WhatsApp has reached a level of presence in the general public that will make it difficult to replace unless a widely-used alternative is on the market. 

There are other messaging apps available and they have different levels of encryption. The two main alternatives to WhatsApp are Telegram and Signal.

Telegram –  Messages are stored in cloud servers in which they are encrypted. Offering group chats of up to 200,000 people, Telegram also offers “Secret Chats” that are only visible on the devices from which messages have been sent or received.

Signal – Key features of this app, supported by Elon Musk, are encryption and the possibility to choose how long messages will be available for. Also supporting group chats, Signal does not appear to limit the number of members.

Why is the WhatsApp update such a big deal? 

Privacy still remains a big topic in the online industry, a sector that is difficult to regulate due to its versatility across the countries, all of which have different law systems and regulations. Especially when apps reach the so-called critical mass, we feel like we cannot really escape from accepting terms and conditions to keep using an app on which we fully rely on, particularly when it comes to communication. WhatsApp is a case that attracted attention because of its diffusion across the globe but we’re probably not as defensive of our data on other apps whose T&C’s we have no problem accepting – a one click yes and it’s done.

Let’s go back to the man that made the creation that led to this – Steve Jobs. In an interview in 2010 posted on YouTube, Steve Jobs expressed his view on privacy:

“Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly. I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data”  

The irony is that this interview came after another privacy concern around Facebook and, despite that, Facebook kept growing. 

So what’s the answer to these changes? Always read the policies that you are accepting and make sure that you’re happy with what they mean. If you’re not, find an alternative that holds policies that work for you and how you want your data handled. In this ever-changing technological world we live in, it’s important that we can trust the apps we use, even if we don’t fully understand what goes on “in the background” of them. If WhatsApp is no longer for you because of its links with Facebook, there’s no doubt that a new communicative app will try to take centre stage over the next few months so keep your eyes peeled!

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