The Privacy Debate: The Hidden Truth behind Our Online Data by Bushra Satkhed

Recently, WhatsApp had taken over the Indian media headlines with its latest update regarding how it processes user data and partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the social media giant’s products, directing its users to accept its revised privacy policy by February 8, 2021, failing which they will not be able to use the instant messaging app. 

This led to a majority of the users, an estimated 80% bidding farewell to the app and shifting to alternative instant messaging platforms, like Signal and Telegram. In a recent survey by the Local Circles, it was estimated that 5% of Indian users said they have downloaded alternate apps and started using them actively after deleting WhatsApp. 16% said they have downloaded alternate apps and started using them actively while reducing WhatsApp usage while 34% of users claimed to have simply downloaded alternate apps and kept them aside, not using them actively and continuing to use WhatsApp. Only 6% of the users have reduced their usage without downloading any other alternate apps.

Moreover, Signal app came into focus regarding users’ privacy, while Telegram displayed a mix of features having a private chat option as well. According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, Signal recorded 26.4 million downloads from India between 4th January and 17th January, while Telegram had recorded 9.1 million downloads. There were also 5 million new downloads for WhatsApp during that period.

Following this chaos, WhatsApp later deferred the update, extended it to May 15, 2021, in face of the severe backlash and came out with a clarification that it provides ‘end-to-end encryption’ to its users, specifically outlining that the data of chats with business accounts along with user’s profile details, image, contact information will be shared with Facebook, Instagram and could be shared with third-party service providers. This means that for instance, if a customer gets a WhatsApp Business Chat update for a flight booking they made on a website or app and the transaction details and invoice are shared on WhatsApp by the website or app, that data can be utilized by their competitor via Facebook advertising and the user could get unsolicited offers for hotels and taxi services on their Facebook, Instagram and possibly even their email, SMS and WhatsApp. The question then arises, why ask users of private accounts to accept the new policy?

Around 79% of users claimed to not use Whatsapp Business Accounts if this policy is implemented in May. On 21st January, a parliamentary panel on information technology questioned WhatsApp representatives on its recently proposed changes in the privacy policy. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asked WhatsApp to withdraw its privacy policy stating that the new terms and conditions take away choice from Indian users.

Amidst all this chaos, a significant question has formed in the minds of the general public which, in reality, has existed since the very beginning of the era of the World Wide Web and social media, which we failed to pay attention to, until now- The Privacy Debate. 

Look around you. We are surrounded by technology since this is the century of digitization. The free internet is available to almost the entire world, an approximate 4.6 billion people i.e., half the global population and we do everything here- connect with friends on Facebook, post your stories on Instagram, search for information on Google, check-in our location on Google Maps, use Paytm, Gpay and other apps to do simple transactions and much more.

Ever wondered how all these sites make billions of dollars when it all comes free to you? The services you use online do come at a cost and that is YOU. You pay them with your very identity. These websites track everything you do online- from your status updates, the places you have checked in, the videos you watch online, the pages you see and other things you do online and take this information to study it thoroughly and create your profile. They learn your habits, your personality based on your online behaviour in order to advertise your preferences to you. They sell your information to businesses in order to make money. 

We all have noticed this at some point in our lives. For instance, you watch a cooking video on how to make Mexican tortilla wraps on YouTube and minutes later you find a pop-up ad on Facebook about the newest Mexican restaurant that opened up in your city, right? This is why. 

So every Google search you have done and every person you might have stalked online- they know it. All we know till now is that they use this for selling products to you, and this is one of the most invasive advertising techniques. But we do not know what extent they would go to in order to breach our data and we are not sure when they might use it against us. Perhaps you knew this already or maybe, you know it now. Either way, you might have not really paid enough attention to it. So, the question is, why now?

The answer to that question would be the media. We know the news about the WhatsApp privacy policy since we received the update notice on the app. Media houses covered the headline of how around 1,700 private WhatsApp group links were visible on Google search recently. But did you know that this was first discovered in 2019, and was apparently fixed last year after becoming public? Another old issue, which also appeared to have been fixed but seems to be cropping up, again, is user profiles showing up through search results. People’s phone numbers and profile pictures could be surfaced through a simple Google search. Perhaps, if news channels covered this vigorously, this problem would have been discussed two years. If the media would not have emphasized about the new privacy update of the app, no one would have really noticed it and the very few people who actually read the terms and conditions would not be able to make a big deal about it. 

So what is the solution to this digital chaos? 

Instead of merely asking WhatsApp to withdraw its privacy policy, the government of India should work towards rectifying the gap in the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 and get it enacted before it is too late. This act controls how your personal information is used by organizations, businesses or the government. Everyone responsible for using personal data has to follow strict rules called ‘data protection principles’. They must make sure the information is: used fairly, lawfully and transparently. Though the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 removed various shortcomings of the previous 2018 bill like diluting the requirement of data localization, yet the provisions which empower the government to excuse government agencies from the provisions of this Bill have still been retained and can defeat its purpose. Data collection is indispensable and not the problem. The problem is the lack of safeguards and guidelines on how this data can be used. Data needs to be protected not only from the businesses but also from the so-called custodians of our democracy. In the end, the fact remains that tech giants need a more legal and regulatory watch, given the digital proliferation in the country. However, it is essential that we are exposed to a safer digital space, given that most of us aren’t aware of the reach of the data being generated. For now, WhatsApp has to roll back its privacy policy and think of methods to allow opt-in and opt-out choices so that forced consent is never made the order of the day. Moreover, those who still don’t wish to continue using the app can switch to comparatively safer apps like Signal and Telegram, that is if they really trust these apps. In the end, they are free and therefore the cost will always be you.

Since we won’t be able to stop using the internet all of a sudden, here are a few things you can do to protect your online activity:

1. Delete browser cookies and clear your browser history on a regular basis. Keep your search history paused on all apps such as Google, Facebook etc.

2. Keep your GPS switched off to avoid being tracked at all times- Remember to switch it off immediately once you are done using it for searching a location on Google Maps or booking a cab online

3. Cover It Up: Block all your devices’ built-in cameras by taping a piece of paper over it in order to avoid being spied on

4. Turn off the ‘Save Password’ feature in your web browsers

5. Turn off auto-download options on your messaging apps

6. Do not back up your photos, chats on Google Drive and iCloud

7. Avoid using online wallets to stay on the safer side- internet banking through the official bank websites is more than enough online transaction for an individual- there is absolutely no need for you to give away your personal data to other platforms as well.

8. Lock you devices, accounts and apps with strong passwords wherever possible

9. Keep personal information limited- Do not send across important numbers such as bank account details, PIN codes and other things on online platforms

10. Make online purchases from secure sites only i.e., sites which have the URL https://. The “s” here at the end is critical because it indicates that your connection is encrypted. Don’t purchase anything from a website that doesn’t have this. 

11. Think twice before saving your financial information to websites you buy from, even if you shop with them frequently.

12. Download apps from official app stores only

13. For Whatsapp- use it for professional or work purpose only and shift to apps like Snapchat, Telegram or Signal if you feel they are safer for your private conversations.

14. Carefully read the pop-ups you receive before allowing permission to access

15. Practice safe browsing- Ensure that you are using an antivirus program, keep your devices and apps updated, ensure your internet connection is secure and try to use a secure VPN connection

In the end, your online and offline safety is in your hands, so try to become more technically aware of the internet and be careful on how you browse on the web!