WhatsApp Privacy Policy Debate: Users will be limited on most features if they do not accept the new policy by Bushra Satkhed

In January this year, WhatsApp had informed users about the changes in its terms of service and public policy through an in-app notification. WhatsApp had kept a deadline of February 8, 2021, directing its users to accept its revised privacy policy failing which they will not be able to use the app, but had to extend it to May 15, 2021, due to severe backlash directed towards it over user concerns that data was being shared with parent company, Facebook and stirring an online data privacy controversy. Now, the company has once again changed its course of action and has announced that users not accepting its privacy policy update by the new deadline will not face removal of their accounts on the said date. The company has not clarified the reason behind the decision for easing the May 15 deadline for acceptance of the privacy policy update, nor divulged the number of users who have agreed to the terms so far.

However, users not agreeing to the controversial terms after “several weeks” will not be able to access their chat list, and eventually, will not be able to answer incoming phone or video calls over the app. 

So it seems like users will have to accept the new privacy policy at some point, especially if they wish to continue using the features because a user will encounter limited functionality on WhatsApp until they decide to accept the new update. 

According to WhatsApp, the key updates include more information about its service and how it processes user data; how businesses can use Facebook hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats; and how WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the company products. The company insists that the acceptance of the privacy policy update does not expand its ability to share user data with Facebook. However, users alleged the app of sharing user information with Facebook which had forced the messaging platform to postpone the February deadline to May 15. This criticism faced by WhatsApp earlier this year increased the popularity of rivals like Telegram and Signal as users ran towards these platforms.

India remains a critical market for Internet companies like Facebook with its large population base and burgeoning Internet adoption. The country is the world’s second-largest telecom market and the biggest consumer of data. So what should users and WhatsApp do solve this crisis? Let’s first understand the basics of the problem before finding a solution.

Why do users have to accept WhatsApp’s new privacy policy?

If users decide not to accept the new privacy policy, they won’t lose full functionality immediately but the company will gradually disable all the features after a period of several weeks. Also, the company has clarified that this will not happen to all users at the same time.  The company is saying that it won’t delete your WhatsApp account if you don’t accept the update, but if you can’t use any of the features, then there is no point in having an account. And then, when you won’t have access to your account, it will remain inactive and eventually will get deleted as WhatsApp generally deletes those accounts that remain untouched for about 120 days.

What does WhatsApp claim about its privacy policy?

WhatsApp continues to claim that its messaging app is end-to-end encrypted and that it doesn’t have access to your private chats or location. The company also assures that it will not share private messages or other data with Facebook. But, the new update will enable WhatsApp to use some of the “business conversations” hosted with the social network for advertising. Only “when you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook,” company said. WhatsApp also says it will “clearly label conversations with businesses that are choosing to use hosting services from Facebook. Messaging with businesses is different than messaging with your family or friends.”

Why the delay in the deadline?

WhatsApp faced massive criticism from users, privacy activists and even the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology which flagged the new policy as invasive and said that it enabled WhatsApp and other Facebook group companies to make precise inferences about users. Many began to download other instant messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram and deleting their accounts on WhatsApp.

What should Indian users do now?

When we talk about WhatsApp, the company will either have to take back its privacy policy completely for now or come out with a new policy that will be more acceptable to users, privacy experts and the IT Ministry, or they must wait till the Personal Data Protection Bill is passed by the parliament and then make changes to its policy accordingly. For the users, the good thing is that WhatsApp is still okay to use as it will not delete your account if you decide not to accept the new update terms and conditions. However, there are some risks attached to using the platform and users have to make some changes to stay safe. 

The issue comes with your metadata, i.e., the details around your messages, who, when, where, what, your contacts and all the information about your device. WhatsApp collects too much data, but lesser when compared to apps like Facebook, Messenger, Google, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. So, if you are not worried about your data being collected from your phone from these apps, then you shouldn’t worry too much about WhatsApp. However, it is best to change a few setting to stay in the safe zone. Here’s what you can do:

1. Stop malicious content from infecting your phone via WhatsApp 

Users must avoid opening suspicious links and unknown attachments sent on WhatsApp that could potentially hack your phone. 

2. Disable autosave option

This will help in protecting your data, and you can download selected images to your phone’s photo gallery according to your need. Image files can be crafted with embedded threats. When you disable autosaving of images, you prevent these unknown files from getting access into your phone and save your privacy and message content from any major risk.  

3. Add a PIN number to your app
An attacker can’t hijack your account with the two-step verification being registered in your account, as the PIN will secure your account just like your phone password.

4. Disable back-ups
WhatsApp backups are not protected by that end-to-end encryption. There are no serious claims that your content is analyzed, but it can be accessed by Apple or Google, invalidating the purpose of WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.

5. Use WhatsApp for professional messaging only
If you have workgroups or general groups which are not too much of a private matter for you, you can accept the new policy and use WhatsApp for your work-related messaging, while shifting to safer platforms like Telegram and Signal for private/personal chatting.

In conclusion, user can keep using WhatsApp, well until it becomes even more complicated and more changes are introduced in the future. If users find it inconvenient, they can simply forget about it and delete their account, switching to other apps. WhatsApp’s commercial evolution looks like it is here to stay.