Why Leave WhatsApp?

Why Leave WhatsApp?

@S7venLights

WhatsApp's new privacy policy has sparked much needed awareness for online privacy. The policy update takes effect May 15th 2021. So let's get clear on why we should leave, either now or after the 15th. The Change can be gradual.


In Short:

Privacy is a human right and there are great risks to freedom without it. For me it's a logical, informed and ethical decision to leave Facebook and not one of paranoia. But it's also a pleasure to leave,  since there are many great private alternatives which are no less convenient. Facebook and Google have a dangerous monopoly on worldwide personal data with a history of unethical behaviour. It's no wonder they have been subject to anti-trust hearings lately. WhatsApp's new privacy policy will expand that unethical monopoly but more of an issue is tһаt their backup features have for a long time exposed our private messages. Quote from their privacy policy: 

''When you or others use third-party services or other Facebook Company Products that are integrated with our Services, those third-party services may receive information about what you or others share with them. For example, if you use a data backup service integrated with our Services (like iCloud or Google Drive), they will receive information you share with them, such as your WhatsApp messages.''

Even if you turn off chat backup, the people you are chatting to may have it on, so your conversation will still be uploaded. Even if both parties have it off the messages are stored accessible on your phone where any app with storage access can collect them. This is unacceptable for an app where a large percentage of private and business conversation is held. If we don't delete our WhatsApp accounts sooner rather than later complacency will set in and no real change will happen. Deleting is the only way the masses will switch. 

If you're still not sure why to leave or don't see the harm or think you have nothing to hide, keep reading. Use the summaries of each section for a quick read.

In the meantime, I'll be off to greener, albeit bluer Signal Messenger pastures. There's no harm in trying it for yourself 😉.

Here's a good video on the topic.


More Detailed Why:

The primary problem

is WhatsApp's misleading/deceptive claim to being end to end encrypted (E2EE). The public definition or understanding of E2EE is that only you and the end recipient can access your data. WhatsApp's backup feature likely purposefully negates E2EE. It should be called a backdoor feature. It's possible to backup chats E2EE, but these companies don't want that. Your messages may not be directly accessible to Facebook but they are still being stored on Google and iClouds servers and are subject to the broad spectrum of their privacy policies, as well as their artificial intelligence (AI). When we put data on the cloud it is essentially being stored on strangers computers. We don’t think of it that way when it comes to obscure online companies, but if someone walked in our front door asking for the kind of information we give to companies these days, we would probably never have agreed to the fine print.

Proprietary closed source code:

Summary: Unlike other chat apps, there’s no way to confirm WhatsApp is doing what it says it’s doing.

Most chat app alternatives today use open source code, meaning essentially they are like open books. The code of WhatsApp is closed source and not publicly available or readable. There is no way for public to audit, improve or confirm what the app is doing. WhatsApp could technically be doing a lot of privacy invasive things without us knowing. It's possible for it to access your microphone, camera and other phone sensors for more unspecified data. I'm not saying this does happen but it is technically possible and the risk vs reward of breaking or bending their privacy policy is something Facebook can afford.

Without open source, E2EE may have flaws, backdoors or bad implementation and there's no way of knowing. With open source, apps are accountable. If an app does something you don't like, you can modify it and share your modifications. If there are flaws or security issues, open source allows public to supply fixes. Closed source is like a pre-made meal not supplying an ingredients list, would you eat that? In fact open source code is the most necessary step towards online privacy or at least transparency.

One thing we can tell about WhatsApp is, where its network traffic goes and what trackers are included in it's installation ('tracker' is a name for parts of software that report your data). We know WhatsApp includes a Google tracker. Tip: Scan your android phone for trackers with Warden and look into Libre and FOSS services for safer open source options.

Unprotected Metadata:

Summary: WhatsApp and others can see who’s talking to who and then link this to your profile, which is also bad for privacy, Signal doesn't/cant.
WhatsApp may not have direct access to our messages (although who's to say they don't have data sharing agreements with Google who do), but WhatsApp and others can see our metadata. Put simply metadata is information about who is talking to who and when. It's like the address and post stamp on a letter, the letter is sealed, but for example; you can tell if the pope is talking to the Russian mafia 😅. The NSA actually conducts mass surveillance on countries by monitoring metadata. It is visible to anyone with access to the Facebook servers or internet backbone of a country or anyone with a warrant to access Facebook's servers (which does happen on mass, keep reading). Of course WhatsApp does use metadata to track us too.

Metadata linked with your Facebook identity and friend circles isn't harmless and a lot can be learned about individuals with it. This is probably one of the reasons Facebook spent $19 billion buying the ad free WhatsApp. When you call a doctor often, Facebook knows to sell you health insurance and the insurance company can use those analytics to up your costs. Message someone every morning and throughout the day, WhatsApp can assume you're dating. When you call a maternity clinic enough Facebook's AI could surmise you're a pregnant teenager. When the friends you message are mostly in support of one political party, Facebook or others could assume you're a good target for a swing vote and feed you content that favours the party they or their advertisers prefer (See the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the documentary: The Great Hack).

Do you see the potential risk and harm? Worse… If you're in a country that is oppressing citizens, governments can monitor the network and see when you're talking to a deemed "enemy". Not too long ago, Iran blocked Signal and Telegram but not WhatsApp, which is rather telling don't you think?

Who we talk to and when should be private. Signal solves this by not sending unnecessary metadata, not storing metadata logs and E2EEncrypting senders metadata, so they can’t monitor who's talking to who.

Monopoly and power:

Knowledge is power and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as history has repeatedly shown.

Summary: we have given too much personal info out and there are companies which have view of data of entire populations. We have little control and view, of current and future risks to our safety. It may be okay to have our data out there now, but one day if its not, you can't just pull it all back. Proper E2EE, physical barriers to privacy invasion, are needed.

Companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon know a lot and do harness that power! In fact its said they know and remember more about us than we can. As a result they have out sold, out developed, undercut, copied, bought out, censored and suppressed competition in the 'free' market. This was the topic of recent anti-trust hearings against these companies. Facebook bought WhatsApp and not long afterwards the founders of WhatsApp left, one lamenting that he'd sold his users privacy and one donating $50 million to Signal. When any one business gets control of a market that's one problem, but when a set of companies control the market, the flow of information and know everything they can about each individual in society… The implications are staggering and unprecedented. The data set these companies hold combined with their AI algorithms is already shown to have the power to predict and change what we will do (see 'The Social Dilemma' documentary). 

We don't know the long term effects of this and there are very few physical barriers to disable malicious use of this data for the present or future. Your data may be fine now, but what happens when say a future Hitler dictator type character gets in control? You can’t reverse and delete years of data out there in a hurry. Proper E2EE (being a physical barrier) and paid or community supported platforms, where the money and data is distributed fairly within the users control, is what we need. Ethical platforms like this already exist and it's time we support each other and not the convenient central powers.

Mark Caesarberg


Arguments

Any argument should be had in a calm, non judgmental and educational tone, so please read as such. One may be passionate about privacy but people don't react well to pressure. So share truth with patience and love.

But you're still being tracked if you leave WhatsApp:

While I understand most people are still tracked in other ways when leaving WhatsApp and one might say leaving WhatsApp is pointless, it's quite a different scenario to have the bulk of your personal conversations tracked as compared to your browsing history or posts intended for public. That said, email conversations and social media are also a big privacy issue we should improve on. I personally haven't used Facebook or Google for years and even removed tracking elements from my phone and operating systems. I'm in the process of deleting old social media and linked accounts and I suggest the same to others. So it's not hypocritical to leave WhatsApp. Change has to start somewhere and private chats are a good place to start.

It's just advertising, it's harmless:

Summary: advertising can be served without invading privacy and our data is not used to simply serve relevant ads, but also to surveil and manipulate us.

If WhatsApp was just a chat app and Facebook just a tool to connect us to each other and there was no tracking or storing accessible profiles on people there wouldn't be a problem here. If we were truly in control of our data and no one but the intended recipients had access to it, then there wouldn't be a privacy problem. We could even accept ads if they didn't track us, as with DuckDuckGo search engine.

But the fact is ad tracking and surveillance capitalism is not inert. Some might say these services are just a tool for communication but they are more than this. A bicycle is a tool that when used fulfils it’s purpose until we’ve achieved our goal with it. It is controlled by us and doesn’t have an agenda. These apps and services have teams of engineers, artificial intelligence and huge investments with agendas. They are designed to keep us engaged for as long as possible and learn as much as possible, in order to serve as many ads as possible. Some effects are addiction and distraction, but it’s not as simple as serving ads.

The nature of media (social media), is to gather and spread information, as we absorb information it does ultimately change our minds for better or for worse, depending who controls that information. Studies have shown that social media algorithms feeding us content we like, can polarize and isolate users, causing division and media echo chambers. Resulting in unbalanced views of the world.

As with all media, propaganda takes place, but never before has propaganda had the potential to reach into the intimate personal details of the people that are to be manipulated.

The information we freely put out there is not only used to get us to buy things we don't need. It is also being accessed by others. Edward Snowden a whistleblower on the NSA in America, revealed how they have data surveillance agreements with many major tech companies via warrants from the FISA secret court through a project named PRISM. Perhaps more worrying; our data is being used to train and build sophisticated AI and computing that will have abilities no human could match up to, see the documentaries: Google and the World Brain and AlphaGo. Technology already exists to interface our brains with computers and we're headed for a whole other world of trouble when we start connecting our own minds to AI and the internet. Right now, Clearview AI and others have harvested our facial data off Facebook for their facial recognition software, meaning very few can walk the streets anonymously any more. The issues go on, but you get the picture.

I have nothing to hide:

Summary: privacy is not about hiding it's about freedom, and you do have things to protect.

Well, privacy is not hiding paranoia, its about ethics and protecting freedom. It’s not about people doing bad things who want to hide… It's about freedom of expression, personal choice and protection – guarding what’s yours or at least having the ability to. Like going into your room and closing the door, your own space… Privacy ensures you can say things uncensored, without fear of oppression and choose what you want to reveal. We all care about privacy and security, everyone keeps certain things private from certain people. We have passwords, keys, doors and curtains, secrets,  thoughts and feelings and this is a good thing. 

"Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say." ― Edward Snowden

We must understand, its not just what we post that these companies track and store. Its where we live, where we go, facial/voice/fingerprint ID, finances, family, religion, beliefs, political views, likes, sexual orientation, education, who we talk to, what we're afraid of, where we browse online, what we search for, how we type, what we buy, personality traits, what others think of us, etc etc…

We share much more than we ever did historically. Now, this doesn't mean we should live offline, just change the habits and services we use online bit by bit and maybe read a few privacy policies 😅.

Ignorance is bliss but it’s time we wake up to what’s going on. No one shares this kind of info with strangers except when it comes to the cloud and let’s also not forget that ‘little’ risk of identity theft and online harassment. We shouldn't have to entrust tech companies and governments with our thoughts and data, we must have proper E2EE by default.

What’s really at risk is freedom, liberty and individual expression. China and it’s social credit system is a good case study. Citizens there are under tight surveillance and censorship. The rest of the world is headed in the same direction. Let’s not wait until it's totally gone, to find out how important privacy is. You may not think you have something to hide, but someone does, like people serving a country or people being persecuted. Privacy is a human right because it protects the most vulnerable. Care about privacy because privacy cares about you. More on this topic.

It's just too inconvenient to move:

It's really not. Keep WhatsApp if you don't want to leave yet, but installing a second chat app won't hurt you, in fact you may even like it. Also the change-over can be gradual.


Solutions & Alternatives

  • Signal Messenger: easy, super private and clean. Same feel as WhatsApp.
  • Element: using a new type of private messaging protocol(matrix), feature rich, with community run servers (messaging not controlled by companies). Can be used to link different chat apps. It's the future.
Those are better for complete privacy. Perhaps also try the popular: Telegram – I wrote an in depth intro to it here. See what sticks, or try more - alternatives.

Content to learn about privacy


How To Delete WhatsApp

Before WhatsApp updates their privacy policy, if you can and if you're brave enough, try disable or unistall WhatsApp, since this may be the only time that moving off WhatsApp could be possible for the masses. You could get a separate WhatsApp number/phone for business if needed, but there is no better time to make a change. Remember to actually delete your WhatsApp account in Whatsapp’s settings if you're happy with other chat apps.

To backup chats you can use the export chat feature per chat for important chats (See screenshots below). Share them with another private app or notes app.

Or open WhatsApp Web and copy paste important messages to your PC. Or on Android you can copy the back up files to your PC by plugging your phone into a PC with USB. Or use this method to transfer your chats directly to Telegram, but starting with a clean slate is suggested.

If you really need to keep WhatsApp, at least turn off the chat backup feature in chat settings. Consider getting a second phone for only WhatsApp, and/or run it with no storage, microphone, location etc permissions. This can be achieved by also using WhatsApp Web To Go to view media without storage permissions. You can also hide your messages using this app. Finally consider changing your keyboard which can access all your text, as this video explains.

Telegram me if you have questions or suggestions for this article. Stay safe out there!


Last updated:May 6th, 2021 -. Pictures from a Edward Snowden sticker pack.