Are you under surveillance? Why people are fleeing WhatsApp

WhatsApp told users: Share data with FB or stop using the app

In Summary

• Change in privacy policy by WhatsApp got people spooked about motives of 'Big Tech'

• This led to an exodus, but IT expert says the reality is that 'we are all being watched' 

Privacy concerns have arisen over WhatsApp
Privacy concerns have arisen over WhatsApp

Concerns emerged over the New Year when popular messaging app WhatsApp announced changes to its privacy policy. Social media was suddenly plagued with alarmist warnings that the changes would be bad for WhatsApp users.

Though WhatsApp clarified that the changes to its privacy policy would not expose users' private information to surveillance, the developments raise questions over how much of our data is in the hands of foreign commercial entities, collectively referred to as Big Tech companies. These include Amazon, Apple, Facebook (which owns WhatsApp), Google, Microsoft and Twitter.

So much was the hue and cry over WhatsApp that alternative messaging apps, such as Telegram and Signal, experienced a surge in new users this January. Celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk publicly endorsed Signal.

For all the furore about privacy, what are the odds that the average person will ever be targeted for surveillance? "We are all being watched," says Gray Kassich, a Nairobi-based ICT expert. "We are monitored by law enforcement agencies, advertisers through social media, researchers, as well as malicious persons (such as hackers) intending to steal from their victims,” he says.

According to Kassich, the average person is not likely to be targeted by foreign intelligence agencies unless he or she is the subject of investigation. However, everybody inadvertently gets caught up in mass surveillance, mostly from security cameras installed along roads, in buildings, supermarkets, banking halls and even in public transport.

Of concern is what the big tech companies do with the massive amount of personal data they have accumulated. Big tech companies say they neither read your messages nor listen to your calls. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an NGO active in digital privacy rights, explains how small snippets of data provides insights into individuals.

Imagine getting an email from an HIV testing service. You call a doctor, then visit the website of an HIV support group, all within the same hour. The tech company does not know what was in the email or what you discussed with your doctor during your phone call, but the sequence of events can easily lead to a conclusion regarding your health status.

As we cannot completely cut ourselves off from the digital world, we all have to find a way of staying safe online. “Never share personal information with any website that requests it,” Kassich says. “When signing up for social media and websites, use a different email account instead of your main one.”

Other tips he offers:

  • Never conduct banking activities on free Wi-Fi or any other Internet access point you don’t control.
  • Avoid sharing information with strangers.
  • Avoid installing apps from unofficial sources.
  • Pay attention to any sudden change in your devices and computers. A drop in performance or strange software/apps should be investigated.
  • Remove apps you don’t use as they are a security risk.
  • Stay updated with information regarding your devices and apps. Implement any advisories you get from the manufacturers.

“Online or offline, the fewer people you share a secret with, the better chance you have of keeping it private,” says the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Edited by T Jalio