DUDU RAMELA: Come February 8, if you have not accepted WhatsApp’s new terms and conditions you’ll have to delete the app. That’s because you’ve been given an ultimatum – whether to take it or leave it. Let’s find out what exactly is contained in these new rules and regulations that WhatsApp wants you to play with. We’re joined by Arthur Goldstuck, CEO of World Wide Worx. Always a pleasure, Arthur. What is it that one needs to know to make an informed decision about whether to stay or to go?
ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Thank you, Dudu. The first thing to know is that, if you do go, it means that you won’t be able to keep in contact with the majority of your connections – family, friends, contacts – using WhatsApp as the main communication channel. If you use email primarily, if you use SMS or voice, or even Facebook Messenger for that matter, you’ll find that WhatsApp in South Africa is used by more than half the population. So you’ve got to consider that before looking at all the other issues.
There are two main issues that people are concerned about. The one is that people think this means Facebook would have access to the content of the chat – and that’s not true. Facebook cannot access the content of any WhatsApp chat because it’s encrypted. There are exceptions if you’re involved in criminal activity, or [authorities] believe that you’re a suspect or a person of interest in a terrorism case. Then they have the right to use various tools and techniques to access those messages. But besides those extreme circumstances, the contents of your messaging are completely secure.
The real issue here is that they are going to allow Facebook and WhatsApp to combine information about usage of the apps and your smartphone. So if you use WhatsApp, for example, it automatically has access to your entire contacts list. And, in effect, that’s what Facebook is telling you to share – from WhatsApp to Facebook – so they can target you more accurately based on how many people you are in touch with, what kinds of communication you have with those people, not what’s in it. But the fact that you are involved in video communication, for example, could be used to target advertising at you.
But, generally speaking, they can access your location data, the speed of your phone, or the battery level of your phone, to tell you are the kind of person who often lets your phone run down, for example, or who your real mobile operator is. All of that kind of information starts adding up to create a profile that allows their advertisers to target you more precisely.
DUDU RAMELA: Is it just WhatsApp, or are there plenty of other applications that actually do this? Does it really matter?
ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: If you consider the extent to which you’ve been giving permission to Google over the years, then you could say that it actually doesn’t make a difference because, if you use an Android phone, really Google has access to all your phone information and your current behaviour – not the contents, but certainly the activity. And then if you combine that with Google Search, for example, and Gmail and Google Maps and YouTube, suddenly they have a vast picture of who you are, what you search for, and what you buy. That is where you’ve really given up your privacy. So it’s actually the same situation that applies now with Facebook and WhatsApp and Instagram, combining all the data on you so they start taking a big picture. So, to avoid that, you’ve actually got to go to a completely independent messaging app.
DUDU RAMELA: Facebook has been hacked on a number of occasions. A lot of people are also worried about privacy in terms of security.
ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Security of the contents of your messages tends not to be an issue. It’s the security of your personal data that becomes an issue. Facebook hasn’t plugged the hole that allowed hackers, for example, to send you a link pretending, for example, that it’s a video that includes something about you, or something embarrassing about you. You click on that link and what you really do is give permission to access your account, and that then starts giving access to deeper levels of information about you.
Ultimately they’re looking for bank-account information and the ability to access your financial data as well as the actual money.
DUDU RAMELA: What are the alternatives?
ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Of two alternatives on the market at the moment the best known one is Telegram, which was started by Russian developers and in fact is not what you might call a pro-Russian app, because the Russian authorities banned it for two years because they refused to co-operate with them. That is perhaps the most widely used of the more secure apps. It doesn’t share your information with any other application, so it doesn’t allow any advertisers to build up a profile about you. You also have a desktop version of it, for example. So that’s a little trick that WhatsApp introduced not too long ago.
The other big one is Signal. Signal was developed by, among others, the person who created WhatsApp, so he understands what it takes to create this kind of application, but also what the issues were. The reason that he left Facebook was because he disagreed with the direction of WhatsApp. And Signal is partly in response to that.
So Signal is probably the most secure and the least likely to share your information or make your information available to any other application.
DUDU RAMELA: Who is regulating all of these social media platforms in terms of making sure that users’ data is not abused, if you will.
ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Here is the real problem. Regulators have been asleep at the wheel, because it’s technology and regulators tend to be the establishment’s real old-timers, even running governments around the world. They tend to have the courts behind the times in terms of the significance of these apps and also how widespread their use is. Only now, for example, are American antitrust authorities starting to look at the issue of whether Facebook should be allowed to integrate Instagram into its services. Because Instagram goes way back to 2011, at that stage the transaction was approved because the regulators had no idea of its significance.
The same with WhatsApp in 2014. So Facebook is now arguing, hey, this is a moot issue because you already gave us approval back then. The difference is back then they had no idea of the extent to which so much information could be aggregated across all of these apps.
DUDU RAMELA: Interesting. It’s got a lot of people talking, and we’ll see what actually happens come February 8, whether people will leave or stay with WhatsApp. Thank you very much, Arthur Goldstuck, CEO of World Wide Worx.