How WhatsApp lost the trust of its users in India, its largest market

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In India, WhatsApp replaced texting. You didn’t text someone your address or your favourite recipe. You Whatsapped it. India is the largest user base of WhatsApp, a Facebook company. In its user design and convenience, the app works beautifully.

And yet there is a mass movement in India right now to migrate from WhatsApp to Signal, sparked by concerns of privacy. “My dad has joined Signal!” said a friend. When your parents join an online platform, you know it has truly gone mass.

A few years ago a mid-level executive of a big tech company was visiting Delhi from the Silicon Valley. Some of us were invited to meet him. I was telling him the need for all online private messaging and data storage to have end to end encryption. People are increasingly concerned about online privacy, I said. A young Indian policy researcher working the same big tech company interjected: how many people?

We have long been told that privacy is an elite concept, even elitist. Privacy doesn’t matter in a country where people can urinate on the roadsides. Turns out it does, because even when they take a leak on the highway they try to protect their privacy with trees and bushes.

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It is ironical that WhatsApp should be in the eye of a privacy storm because it was the first mass market app to have end to end encryption. Facebook messenger, Instagram and Twitter DMs still don’t have it. Your Google Drive and Apple iCloud data are not end to end encrypted either. So how did WhatsApp reach a point where public sentiment has revolted against a privacy policy update?

Concerns over online privacy have been growing in India in the last few years. People call on WhatsApp audio calling rather than phone, because they think all phone calls are recorded. “WhatsApp is safe,” we began to hear. Then there were rumours that WhatsApp isn’t as safe as we think. This was limited to journalists, activists, bureaucrats and politicians. Such people began to move to FaceTime, Telegram and Signal.

We got our first confirmation about Whatsapp not being as safe as we imagined when Facebook itself publicly revealed that a surveillance company had used a software to use a vulnerability in WhatsApp to hack into people’s phones. All they had to do was to give anyone a missed video call on WhatsApp to jailbreak their phones. Indian users were also targeted, Facebook said.

After Facebook filed a lawsuit, the company said in a court filing that Facebook itself had tried to buy their services to snoop on iPhone users!

Mainstream concern in India

This was not enough for WhatsApp privacy to become a mainstream concern in India. But then, Bollywood entered the picture. And there’s nothing more mainstream than Bollywood, the Mumbai film industry whose stars we consider infallible.

After the suicide of a prominent Bollywood actor last year, the media and police went after his innocent girlfriend, a Bollywood actor herself, investigating charges not just of murder but of absolutely anything they could find. It was a witch hunt so cruel you wondered about whether these people have any humanity left in them. A look at seized mobile phones, and the agencies found some indications of drug use. The dead actor himself was said to be taking drugs.

A certain female ‘News’ presenter read aloud private WhatsApp chats of some of these Bollywood actors on prime time. Some chat messages were hilariously misinterpreted to suggest criminality. In India it is difficult with some ‘news’ channels to tell whether they are being facetious or whether they’re actually as dumb as they seem on face value.

Many watched the months-long saga of the Bollywood witch-hunt with macabre fascination. Some recoiled with disgust. The legal process is one thing, but who gave the ‘News’ presenter the right to read private Whatsapp chats aloud on TV? The agencies leaked it, and she loved it. Scoop of the year.

Nobody at WhatsApp or Facebook seemed to ask the question: what is it doing to our credibility as a private messenger with end to end encryption? WhatsApp claimed even they couldn’t read our messages, so how come this female ‘star’ anchor could?

The answer lies in cloud backups. WhatsApp keeps prodding you from time to time to backup your chats. These backups on your device or on cloud services are not protected. WhatsApp should have come out and explained this. It didn’t. As a company, Facebook responds only to crises and criticism, thus giving the impression it doesn’t really care about users unless its own reputation and business are at stake.

Too late, too little

With WhatsApp’s latest privacy update, again, the company waited for a crisis to explain the update. And they’ve lost too much trust for people to buy their explanation. They first sent an update we had no option but to consent to, and when we read headlines about it, we felt it was something sneaky. Since trust in the platform has already been eroding, it didn’t take much for people to be up in arms.

WhatsApp now says the change affects only the chats we may have with business accounts, not the ones with friends and family. But who gets to decide whether chats with business accounts shouldn’t have privacy protection? Why should Facebook know what flight tickets I’m booking or when I’m having banking transactions — yes, those are services Whatsapp business accounts is enabling.

It doesn’t help that Facebook hasn’t introduced this change in Europe where it is battling regulators who strangely care about citizen’s right to privacy. It also doesn’t help that a co-founder of Whatsapp, Brian Acton, quit the company precisely over disagreements about monetisation of WhatsApp. He went on to found a non-profit venture named Signal.

Even Elon Musk recommends Signal, a messaging app that has always had the option to make your messages disappear after as soon as 5 seconds, or up to a week. You decide. Only recently did WhatsApp introduce this privacy feature, but not giving users any option other than 7 days. WhatsApp now sounds like a school master who’ll decide how our lives will be regimented. Ours is not to question.

In the end, we the users are having to confront the reality that there is no free lunch. Facebook’s only business model is data and that data is our lives. It is time we took control of it.

Image Credit: Gulf News