On the seductive impulse of following a charismatic leader or a social movement

Google indicates 31,600,000 hits on the unhyphenated phrase WhatsApp switch to Signal. Many of these have popped up in the past week, riding a wave of concern about a Privacy Policy update from Facebook indicating that its WhatsApp data would be accessible to the company that owns it. There is nothing new here, other than an announcement by Facebook that — as any other commercial company — it is collecting user information in exchange for providing a free method of global communication.

The company’s WhatsApp platform is popular for a good reason: it does a great job of encrypting all communications and keeping them private and secure. It has now spelled out the fact that its growth prospects depend on understanding how people use WhatsApp, a practice that has always been in effect. Going forward, this may be monetized according to their privacy policy: https://www.whatsapp.com/legal/privacy-policy

The question is: why is this any different from any other commercial platform? How surprising is it for Gmail users that Google measures absolutely everything about their emails, including their message contents? How does this impact the safety, privacy and security today vs at the time they adopted the app? And finally, why is coverage of the issue so obviously geared towards ‘switching’ rather than simply using multiple communications tools?

In many cases, those making the case are not privacy advocates, but users of Zoom, Gmail, Amazon and other tools by organizations with a terrible track record of ethical privacy conduct. So why write stories that foist cognitive dissonance upon readers when the simple, short term answers are “try both” and “if you want private and secure messaging, you’ve already got it”.

I have not seen any information presented by articles, blog posts and pundits (not to mention eccentric billionaires) that presents a convincing picture of Facebook’s historically gluttonous data collection practices (including the deeply flawed but popular 9to5Mac image) in the context of what the other FAANG/Big Tech companies do.

I am neither a WhatsApp user nor a fan of Facebook’s data collection practices. In fact, I complain about their targeted advertising on a daily basis, just because there is a mechanism for doing so. But in light of the fact that we are being exposed to increasingly loud and disjointed rhetoric about the imperative to ‘switch’ immediately, does this noise not have the hallmarks of manipulative rhetoric?

The overall effect of this ‘movement’ is loose enough to lend it credibility, yet specific enough to hint at motivated forces behind the push. Given that the original creators of WhatsApp are now enemies (and competitors) of Facebook, the company that made them multi-billionaires, as a reader, I would see reasons to look deeper. Certainly Elon Musk has made no secret of his epic hatred for Facebook and his love for Apple, so his considerable public persona is likely to command a lot of press coverage. Personal information powers everything from self-driving cars to online retail purchases, so it is natural for every company that wants to scale to move into Facebook’s space in an aggressive way. But that commercial battle, taking place beyond the limited horizon of individual users, stops no one from trying different tools and even having them simultaneously installed on their devices.

Without a doubt, Facebook is one of the world’s largest data aggregators, but none of the opinion pieces encourages readers and users to fundamentally understand how Big Tech, Edtech and IoT exploit personal information, or even so much as to read WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy.

I find it creepy that such a vague but eerily organized attack comes at a time when human contact is a critical necessity for mental health and well-being. People who depend on the tool to stay in touch with their families and personal networks of friends are asked to ‘make the switch’ at precisely the time when all the world’s health organizations are sounding the alarm about fear, isolation, loneliness.

In the modern world, people exist in the context of their social circles. During troubled times, such as pandemics and global events, personal networks become a safety net for many. The safety impact of disrupting social networks of vulnerable humans during a time of forced social distancing may be more than advertising-dependent bloggers and wannabe privacy advocates are able to grasp, even as they lazily amplify the dubious calls to action they parasitically benefit from.

This story first appeared on the Agora on Jan 10, 2021
(shortcut: https://Popa.ca/WhatsApp)

Personal musings on data protection fails, snafus and oddities, collected, composed and edited by Claudiu Popa; author, educator, bibliophile.

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