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We truly are the product being sold

analysis Updated: Aug 31, 2016 10:31 IST
Highlight Story

The change to WhatsApp’s terms of service to begin sharing user data with Facebook was effected in order to enable users to “communicate with businesses that matter” to them.(Reuters)

WhatsApp has announced it will begin sharing user data such as names, phone numbers, and other analytics with its parent company, Facebook, and with the Facebook family of companies.

This change to its terms of service was effected in order to enable users to “communicate with businesses that matter” to them.

How does this have anything to do with Facebook?

WhatsApp clarifies in its blog post, “... by coordinating more with Facebook, we’ll be able to do things like track basic metrics about how often people use our services and better fight spam on WhatsApp. And by connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them.”

Read | No opting out of this one: WhatsApp will send all phone numbers to Facebook

WhatsApp’s further clarifies that it will not post your number on Facebook or share this data with advertisers. This means little because it will share your number with Facebook for advertisement. It is simply doing indirectly, what it has said it won’t do directly. This new development also leads to the collapsing of different personae of a user, even making public their private life that they have so far chosen not to share online. Last week, Facebook published a list of 98 data points it collects on users. These data points combined with your WhatsApp phone number, profile picture, status message, last seen status, frequency of conversation with other users, and the names of these users (and their data) could lead to a severely uncomfortable invasion of privacy.

Consider a situation where you have spoken to a divorce lawyer in confidence over WhatsApp’s encrypted channel, and are then flooded with advertisements for marriage counselling and divorce attorneys when you next log in to Facebook at home. Or, you are desperately seeking loans and get in touch with several loan officers; and when you log in to Facebook at work, colleagues notice your News Feed flooded with ads for loans, articles on financial management, and support groups for people in debt.

It is no secret that Facebook makes money off interactions on its platform, and the more information that is shared and consumed, the more Facebook is benefitted. However, the company’s complete disregard for user consent in its efforts to grow is worrying, particularly because Facebook is a monopoly. In order for one to talk to friends and family and keep in touch, Facebook is the obvious, if not the only, choice. It is also increasingly becoming the most accessible way to engage with government agencies. For example, Indian embassies around the world have recently set up Facebook portals, the Bangalore Traffic Police is most easily contacted through Facebook, and heads of states are also turning to the platform to engage with people. It is crucial that such private and collective interactions of citizens with their respective government agencies are protected from becoming data points to which market researchers have access.

Read | WhatsApp encrypts all messages now: Why does it matter for users

Given Facebook’s proclivity for unilaterally compromising user privacy, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2011 charged the company for deceiving consumers by misleading them about the privacy of their information. Following these charges, Facebook reached an agreement to give consumers clear notice and obtain consumers’ express consent before extending privacy settings that they had established. The latest modification to WhatsApp’s terms of service seems to amount to a clear violation of this agreement and brings out the grave need to treat user consent more seriously.

There is a way to opt out of sharing data for Facebook ads targeting that is outlined by WhatsApp on its blog, which is the best example for a case of invasion-of-privacy-by-design. WhatsApp plans to ask the users to untick a small green arrow, and then click on a large green button that says “Agree” (which is the only button) so as to indicate that they are opting-out. The interface of the notice seems to be consciously designed to confuse users by using the power of default option. For most users, agreeing to terms and conditions is a hasty click on a box and the last part of an installation process. Predictably, most users choose to go with default options, and this specific design of the opt-out option is not meaningful at all.

In 2005, Facebook’s default profile settings were such that anyone on Facebook could see your name, profile picture, gender and network. Your photos, wall posts and friends list were viewable by people in your network. Your contact information, birthday and other data could be seen by friends and only you could view the posts that you liked. Fast forward to 2010, and the entire internet, not just all Facebook users, can see your name, profile picture, gender, network, wall posts, photos, likes, friends list and other profile data. There hasn’t been a comprehensive study since 2010, but one can safely assume that Facebook’s privacy settings will only get progressively worse for users, and exponentially better for Facebook’s revenues. The service is free and we truly are the product being sold.

Vidushi Marda is a programme officer at the Centre for Internet and Society

Read | Five alternatives to WhatsApp (that aren’t giving away your contacts)

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