But the announcement also underscores a truth that many had been reluctant to acknowledge: if you’re a WhatsApp user, you’re a Facebook customer, and while the two services have historically been quite distinct, the process of integration only moves in one direction.
On the face of it, this latest change need not spark inordinate concern. The most important data held by WhatsApp – the contents of user conversations – remains sacrosanct. The end-to-end encryption used by the app to protect the contents of all chats means that no one, including WhatsApp, knows what users are saying to each other, nor can they easily find out.That encryption is constantly under attack, chiefly by law enforcement agencies that want a return to the heyday of the 2000s, when criminal conspiracies could be easily uncovered by demanding phone companies hand over the contents of SMS messages. But it has held firm, in part because Facebook’s long-term commercial vision is for more encryption, not less – a view Mark Zuckerberg laid out in 2019, when he posted a long note to his Facebook page titled A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking.
But that note also laid out Facebook’s long-term plans for WhatsApp: merging the chat app with the company’s wider social network, in the name of “interoperability”. “With interoperability, you’d be able to use WhatsApp to receive messages sent to your Facebook account without sharing your phone number,” Zuckerberg wrote, “and [in commercial transactions] the buyer wouldn’t have to worry about whether you prefer to be messaged on one network or the other.”
Two years on, those goals are close to being achieved. Already, Facebook and Instagram users can send direct messages to each other without needing to switch apps. And this latest change will, from February, deepen the integration between Facebook and WhatsApp, allowing users to interact with shops that host storefronts on the former without leaving the latter.
If you’re comfortable with Facebook’s use of data (or that of its much closer subsidiary Instagram), it might be difficult to care about this. The company was recently forced by Apple to provide a privacy “nutritional label” on its iOS app, revealing how it works with user data. The labels disclosed more than 100 different pieces of data that may be collected, many of which are directly linked to user profiles, including health and fitness data, “sensitive info” and search histories. For the typical user, who has an account on both services, adding in the small amount of information WhatsApp has is a drop in a bucket by comparison.
Facebook looks to offer encrypted calls
But the change does start to eat away at the idea that you can be on WhatsApp without a Facebook footprint. The two apps’ very different histories and intended uses have led to a split in demographics among their users, and a small but significant proportion of WhatsApp users, drawn by the encryption, ad-free nature and no-frills interface, avoid Facebook itself while still using the chat app it owns.
For those users, this latest disclosure should become a watershed moment: a WhatsApp account and a Facebook account are still two separate things, but from here on out, every change is going to move in one direction. WhatsApp still collects much less data, so there’s no need to panic and sever ties immediately. But a privacy-conscious user would be well advised to begin thinking about what alternative platforms they could use to contact people who are currently only available through Facebook’s portfolio of apps.
Thankfully, there are alternative options, the most well-known of which is Signal, a free app developed by the non-profit that created WhatsApp’s own encryption system. With its roots in the privacy and security community, Signal’s technical underpinnings are second to none, and the app has spent the past few years working on becoming a viable alternative to slick user-focused services such as Facebook Messenger, without compromising on the features that make it a must-have for its more paranoid user base.It should be no surprise that Signal is a viable alternative to WhatsApp: the non-profit which currently bankrolls the app was started with a $50m loan from Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp itself. Alternatively, you could listen to Elon Musk, who this week tweeted the simple message “use Signal”. He’s now the richest person in the world, so he must be right about something, it seems.
Both Mr Acton and Mr Koum had tried to find a way to monetise WhatsApp without bombarding users with adverts (file photo) FACEBOOK'S PRIVACY DISASTERS December 2018: Facebook comes under fire after a bombshell report discovered the firm allowed over 150 companies, including Netflix, Spotify and Bing, to access unprecedented amounts of user data, such as private messages.
Whether you decide to switch or not – or just to set up a back-up chat app in case you feel the need to change down the line – the important thing is to make an active choice, and not allow a thousand small changes to add up a state of affairs you’d never have actively agreed to. We can’t all read the terms and conditions, but we can at least pause before clicking “Agree”.
- Alex Hern is the UK technology editor for the Guardian