Complex Made Simple

WhatsApp controversy explained: Should you uninstall or keep the app?

To decide whether you need to delete WhatsApp or not, we first need to understand how this controversy started, as the answer is quite complicated.

WhatsApp stirred up an international storm when it announced earlier this month that it would be updating its privacy policy Basically, if you decide to contact a WhatsApp Business account, you will be automatically agreeing to share your metadata with Facebook and its family of apps like Instagram WhatsApp played it smart by delaying their update to May, effectively banking on the fact that both the media and people will have moved on since then, and the controversy would have died down

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Should you uninstall WhatsApp in light of the impending privacy policy update that was initially scheduled to launch on February 8, but has now been pushed to May 15th? To decide, we first need to understand how this controversy started, as the answer is quite complicated. 

WhatsApp stirred up an international storm when it announced earlier this month that it would be updating its privacy policy. For most users, they learned this first-hand, when a pop-up appeared on their downloaded app informing them of the coming changes. 

The screen users where met with. Image: XDA Developers

As you can see above, Facebook factored significantly into what would usually be a run of the mill privacy update. While the average user might not have bothered to check what was actually changing, the media and industry members were quick to point it out: WhatsApp was now ‘altering the deal,’ so to speak. In 2016, WhatsApp made it optional to share some of your data (not your messages and calls) with Facebook and its subsidiaries. 

At the time, this was a 180 degree turn for the company: 

“Upon acquiring WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook pledged that the messaging app would not be required to share any data with its parent company, but it reneged on its promise in 2016, prompting an outcry at the time,” the Financial Times notes.  

Related: Cybersecurity expert weighs in on WhatsApp privacy policy controversy

In 2021, WhatsApp was now altering the deal with its users further: It would no longer be an option to share data with Facebook and co. However, the silver lining is that this only applies when you contact a business on the platform. Basically, if you decide to contact a WhatsApp Business account, you will be automatically agreeing to share your metadata with Facebook and its family of apps like Instagram. 

While not all users contact businesses on WhatsApp, all it takes is one single interaction with one for users to fork over their data to Facebook. Given the growing number of businesses on the platform, which WhatsApp acknowledges in the description of its privacy policy update, as wellas Facebook’s push to merge all commercial on goings across its subsidiaries (more on that in a bit), you can be certain that at one point or another, you will likely interact with one. 

Generally, the metadata Facebook would have access to includes your device model, operating system information, battery level, signal strength, app version, browser information, mobile network, connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP), language and time zone, IP address, device operations information and more. While metadata might sound like a technical term to the uninformed, in reality, Facebook will be gaining access to an understated amount of information – almost everything except your messages and calls. 

Again, it’s important to reiterate that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook have access to your messages and calls, as those are end-to-end encrypted, meaning only the users communicating between each other can access this information. 

WhatsApp even released an infographic recently to address users’ misconceptions: 

So now that everything is clear, you have to make a decision: should you uninstall WhatsApp, or are you willing to compromise for continued access to the platform? 

Read: Facebook allegedly pressuring rivals unfairly, this time in the VR field – “They just want to own it all”

Why you should uninstall WhatsApp
If you are absolutely adamant about your privacy, and prefer to share as little of your information with big tech corporations, then you have no choice but to delete the app. Using the app as it is now is already a compromise of sorts, as WhatsApp has access to your mobile number and contacts, in addition to a wide array of other data it collects. As the saying goes, when the product is free, you’re the product. 

On the other hand, if you’re fine with WhatsApp as it is now, but don’t like where it is going, you could avoid contact any business accounts on the app. In that case, you should be shielded from the company’s new data collection strategy – that is, until it updates it again. 

That’s the thing with these companies, it starts with just your phone number, contacts and gallery, and slowly the corporation keeps asking for more and more. These companies will use any excuse at their disposal to justify needing that next piece of personal data: convenience, personalization, operational integrity, etc. as we’ve seen time and time again. 

Obviously, it’s difficult to completely cut off from social media and instant messaging services, especially when livelihoods depend on it. The lesser evil, then, is to look for alternative apps and companies that allow you to have access to similar functionalities with a lot less data harvesting and shady tactics taking place in the background. 

Today, some of these alternatives are apps like Signal and Telegram, which many are switching to today. Realize, however, that these are quite limited when it comes to their user base, so you’ll likely find your contacts list shrinking from three digits to two. 

Read: Facebook has a problem, and it’s spilling over to subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp

Why you should keep WhatsApp installed 

Let’s face it: at the end of the day, WhatsApp and its parent company have led us to a position that is favorable to them, much like Google. They’ve become so omnipresent, so integrated into our lives, that we can’t help but rely on them for most of our day-to-day interactions with family, friends, colleagues and often clients. 

For many professionals working full-time or on a freelance basis, WhatsApp is a free tool that allows them to communicate with clients efficiently and conveniently. With more than 2 billion people using the instant messaging app, you’d be hard-pressed to find your boss, colleague or potential client on another service. Sure, email exists, but for our day to day interactions, WhatsApp and apps like it are ever-present and often the best tool for the job. 

For these people, uninstalling WhatsApp might not be an option. If by some miracle even a billion users move their conversations to an app like Signal or Telegram, then professionals might have a legitimate alternative. After all, even Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, believes people should move to an alternative messaging app like Signal

Sure, that company’s servers have been overloaded with users flocking to register there, but will this demand last? WhatsApp played it smart by delaying their update to May, effectively banking on the fact that both the media and people will have moved on since then, and the controversy would have died down. After all, the messaging service made it clear that it still won’t back down on the update, and wants more time to supposedly dispel any “misinformation” regarding it. 

Why WhatsApp did not cancel its privacy update

WhatsApp has good reason not to back down on its decision to roll out the update. During October of 2020, during Facbeook’s Q3 earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this: 

“In WhatsApp, we just announced how we’re going to make it easier for people to buy products directly within a chat, and integrating WhatsApp business features with Facebook Shops so that way, when a small business sets up a shop, they can now establish, or will be able to establish a commercial presence across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp all at the same time.”

With such an ambitious plan to merge commercial on goings across all its platforms, Facebook naturally refuses to cancel WhatsApp’s privacy policy update. With its business booming as a result of intermittent lockdowns across 2020, Facebook is pushing forward aggressively – whether users like it or not.

The social media giant generated around $21.5 billion in revenue in Q3 2020, up 22% year-on-year. Additionally, WhatsApp now sees “roughly 100 billion messages exchanged every day,” Zuckerberg said at the time.