WhatsApp's clarifications on privacy soothe some Singapore users' concerns
WhatsApp is updating its terms of service to allow it to collect data about users.
SINGAPORE: WhatsApp’s clarifications about updates to its terms of service have gone some way to allay initial concerns over privacy, said users of the messaging app in Singapore who intend to continue using it.
This comes after the policy changes announced last week – centred around sharing data with WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook – sparked a global outcry among users, who said they would flock to other messaging apps.
Users that CNA spoke to said that the subsequent Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) issued by the messaging giant on Tuesday (Jan 12) cleared up some misconceptions over the policy updates and how it would affect their data privacy.
“My initial reaction when I first saw the news was: ‘Oh no, should I switch away from WhatsApp?’” said 27-year-old software engineer Nikhil Suresh, who has also been using rival platform Telegram for years.
“But the FAQs said oh, it’s just (the business messaging aspect) – then that’s okay … I was surprised it was just the business messaging actually. I always assumed it was a separate policy to begin with,” Mr Nikhil added.
The fresh terms laid out by WhatsApp on Jan 6 had asked users to agree to let Facebook and its subsidiaries collect some of their data.
The company had earlier announced that users outside of Europe who do not accept the new conditions before Feb 8 will be cut off from the messaging app.
But on Friday, it said that it would be moving back the date on which people will be asked to review and accept the terms.
"No one will have their account suspended or deleted on Feb 8. We're also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp," it said in a blog post.
"We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15."
WhatsApp added in its FAQs on Jan 12 that the changes relate to how they are giving businesses the option to use “secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts".
The FAQs read: "Whether 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.”
In response to CNA queries, a WhatsApp spokesperson also said: “Every user will be notified within the chat if the business they are talking to has chosen to use Facebook to manage and store their WhatsApp messages.
“This is an optional service that we are providing. People do not have to message or interact with businesses on WhatsApp if they choose not to do so.”
The same day the FAQs were issued, Facebook executive Adam Mosserie clarified that the policy update “will not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way”.
"We can't see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook," WhatsApp also said in its FAQs.
"We don't keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling. We can't see your shared location and neither can Facebook,” it said.
Mr Edward Wong, a 70-year-old business owner, said: “If that is to be believed, then I don't see (the new policy) as a major issue as a user.”
“Before I read the FAQs, I was given a different impression. In fact, the information contradicts what I got from a friend of mine who’s been circulating information online,” said the owner of Edes Spa.
HOW WILL THE CHANGES AFFECT ME?
Data privacy expert Roland Turner told CNA that the changes are “probably not any cause for concern”, but they are “so extensive that it's difficult to say for certain that there's nothing objectionable in there”.
The uproar might also not have been because of the changes themselves, but because of a combination of factors, he added.
Those include a “pent up distrust in Facebook, the intense anxieties on multiple fronts during the last 12 months, and the decision to announce changes that are extensive enough to be difficult to understand, even if they're probably harmless”, he said.
WhatsApp also took pains to emphasise that location data and message content is encrypted end-to-end.
Explaining how encryption works, Mr Turner said the application first transforms outgoing messages into ones that cannot be easily understood by unauthorised observers.
After the message is sent, the app on the recipient’s phone then decrypts it into one that can be understood again, he said.
According to Kevin Shepherdson, CEO of data protection consultancy Straits Interactive, “the most important update is about how they will use users’ metadata, which is data about data, such as the time, frequency and duration of a user’s activities and interactions with other users”.
Though WhatsApp was already collecting information about a user’s hardware model, operating system and phone number, now they will also have information about battery level, signal strength, app version and mobile operator, he said.
He also noted that the changes allow data collection for WhatsApp Business, should users decide they want to engage with these businesses.
But other experts CNA spoke to cautioned that the update may not be as innocuous as it seems.
The update allows WhatsApp to share metadata such as phone numbers a user has called or messaged, the number of times done so and the length of each conversation, said cyber security and privacy researcher at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Choong Han Xiang.
To illustrate how such metadata can be used by an organisation, Mr Choong raised this example: “I see that you called a gynecologist at regular intervals over the past year, and infer that you are a woman.
“I also see calls to restaurants and local businesses, which have listed their numbers online, and thus are easy to find on a map.
“If I find enough of these locations and chart them, perhaps I can infer the area which you live in, with high confidence. I could then figure out things like your socioeconomic status, and probably demographic details as well,” said Mr Choong.
Therefore, even without looking at the user’s conversations, the organisation would have “a good deal” of information to better tailor a marketing strategy for the user, he added.
“This is honestly the extent of the implications of the update for the common user. This may change in the future, say if the data is used for law enforcement purposes, thus opening the way to using the data for direct surveillance and tracking,” he said.
With the use of TraceTogether token data detailed in the Criminal Procedure Code in the news recently, it is “worth noting” that Facebook will disclose data that it is legally compelled to, but the design of WhatsApp is such that the content of such messages are not usually available to it, Mr Choong added.
READ: Legislation to be introduced setting out serious offences for which TraceTogether data can be used for police probe
READ: Police can only ask for TraceTogether data through person involved in criminal probe: Vivian Balakrishnan
Technology law expert Lim Yee Fen, an associate professor at Nanyang Business School at NTU, echoed Mr Choong’s thoughts on how the data could be used and said people in Singapore “should be up in arms”.
She noted that WhatsApp’s declaration states: “Even if you do not use our location-related features, we use IP addresses and other information like phone number area codes to estimate your general location (e.g., city and country). We also use your location information for diagnostics and troubleshooting purposes."
Explaining what this means, Assoc Prof Lim said: “Essentially, without your permission, it can use other information that can determine your location quite well, for example, which mobile phone signal or receiver tower your phone is connected to and hence it can track you.
“Whilst the location may not be as precise as GPS, it can be creepily precise enough as your distance from the mobile phone towers can be used to ascertain your location due to signal strength.”
WILL BUSINESSES SIGN ON?
From a commercial perspective, merchants on WhatsApp would benefit from the added layers of information about their customer base, said businesses CNA spoke to.
It would also be difficult to move away from the messaging platform, which is typically one of the biggest avenues of communication, they said.
“We link all our Facebook ads and Instagram ads to WhatsApp because we believe it is the fastest and most accessible way to communicate,” said Faris Iskandar, the co-founder of aviation school Aeroviation Singapore.
The school, which gets about 150 to 200 messages a month on WhatsApp, added that the ability to respond quickly is an important part of good service.
“I think (we will stick to) WhatsApp as it is still being used widely for messaging. Unless in future, WhatsApp users go down, then we will revert to email or maybe a new messaging platform, like Telegram,” he said.
Owner of Enso Hair Studio Tan Wen Xin agreed that it is easier to respond quickly to clients on WhatsApp compared to Facebook or Instagram, where there is a “lag time” because those accounts are handled by an outsourced team.
While she is aware of the new updates and plans to continue using WhatsApp Business as it allows her to better target customers, she also understands why users may have concerns.
“Initially I thought it was just tracking what customers are looking for. We have this shopping catalogue on WhatsApp Business, and in the privacy update, they said that they will also see how customers interact with this shop catalogue to further push out marketing stuff to them,” said Ms Tan.
“But I didn’t know that they would actually also look at our messages. So the messaging part is a bit of a concern. For me it’s okay, but for clients, they might feel a little bit (like their privacy is) invaded.”
Ms Tan plans to also set up a Telegram account for her business, since most of her studio’s clients are in their 20s or 30s and may be more willing to move to other messaging platforms if they are concerned about the update, she said.
“Clients who are 30 or 40-plus, they don’t have Telegram. And they probably wouldn’t download it just to receive messages from us, unless a huge part of their social circle is on Telegram.”
Businesses may also have reasons to be concerned about the update, said Assoc Prof Lim.
“There’s really nothing to stop Business A’s information to be shared with Facebook, and then Facebook sharing the information with Business B, who is a direct competitor of Business A. I think businesses maybe should be treading a bit more cautiously,” she said, especially for those in smaller niche markets.
“Do you really want your customer base and what kind of statistics or what they're buying be leaked to your competitor via Facebook?”
TO MOVE OR NOT TO MOVE?
The backlash has driven millions worldwide to explore other messaging alternatives. Telegram reportedly saw millions more downloads since the changes were announced.
More than 100,000 users installed Signal across the Apple and Google app stores in the two days after the new terms were announced, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.
But a complete migration may not be an option for all of WhatsApp’s two billion-odd users.
For one, users like Mr Nikhil and Mr Wong said they are likely to remain on the platform, not least because it is more practical than moving to a new one.
Mr Nikhil's communications are currently split 50-50 between WhatsApp and Telegram, with some friend groups – and importantly, his parents – still on the former.
“I thought about how much work it would be (to get my family over from WhatsApp) and said: ‘That’s not happening’,” he joked.
“If you think about where their communities are, my mum’s friends or dad’s friends are all on WhatsApp (so it would be hard for them to move),” he added.
Mr Wong, 70, said he is still mulling his options but is also inclined to stay on WhatsApp.
“I have so many friends and communications done on WhatsApp. Ask me to change to something else and I don’t know what’s going to happen to my contacts and how to retrieve past conversations,” he said.
Assoc Prof Lim agreed that there will be some people who have to stay on WhatsApp because their networks of friends and family are very wide, with many of them on the platform.
“For example, if you have a big family and the matriarch is like 94 years old, and she uses WhatsApp to communicate with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it's going to be quite hard for her to change to Signal. So there will be those people- the great-grandchildren and the grandchildren - who are then stuck with WhatsApp, even though they would rather not,” she added.
“But that doesn't mean that they're going to use WhatsApp for everything, that's the other thing too, just because they stay on and they accept the terms and conditions, we might see a very slow drift away.”
She was “a bit disappointed” in the “brutal” timing of the update, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where many people are reliant on messaging technologies to communicate with loved ones.
"With many people staying home, they are also reliant on e-commerce businesses that use WhatsApp and they may again be cornered into continuing to use WhatsApp," said Assoc Prof Lim.
Adding that she looks forward to having another competitor in the field such as Signal, Assoc Prof Lim continued: “This is really bad timing, in the sense that they are almost forcing people to the corner, saying that if you want to stay in touch with your friends, you’ve got no choice you have to stay on."
She added: “This is actually very targeted timing, which is not in the interest of society or consumers. And frankly, it's probably a result of them having a monopoly for so long. That is the biggest problem.”
But in CNA’s Heart of the Matter podcast, one expert reframed the issue: “Would it be better to know what your data is being used for than not to know?”
“These organisations trying to be transparent should not be punished, in a sense, for wanting to be transparent about the way in which data is used,” said Rajesh Sreenivasan, the head of technology, media and telecommunications at Rajah & Tann Singapore.
“In fact, my concern here is that because of what's happening to Facebook, the other organisations may think twice before being as transparent as Facebook has been about the way in which the data is intended to be used,” he said.
Mr Sreenivasan also urged users to ensure that the decision to join newer, less-established messaging platforms is not “a knee jerk reaction”.
“To move from an established platform to a new player has inherent risks ... in terms of not knowing who these players are, how sustainable their business models are going to be, and whether they themselves will change their terms and conditions – perhaps to an even more severe position later on when they have themselves to make money.”
Listen to the full Heart of the Matter podcast on WhatsApp's new terms of service here: