On how WhatsApp went back on their word and about a good alternative

It was a Friday.

After surviving 5 hours of horribly soporific lectures on Law, like most other Fridays, I headed to my hostel room with the pleasure of having a couple of weekend holidays. Reached room and pulled out my phone, plugged in the earphones and fell into a nap. When I woke up, few of my apps had been automatically updated, including WhatsApp. When I opened it, I saw an intriguing message.

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As it happens on rarest occasions, the lawyer in me woke up, and I started reading the WhatsApp Privacy conditions and Terms of Services.

On March 17th, 2014, soon after the Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp was announced, its founder Jan Koum wrote on the WhatsApp Blog, reassuring that a compromise on users’ privacy would never be made and that data wouldn’t be shared with Facebook.

He reminisced his growing up in Ukraine, which was then a part of USSR which had surveillance on its citizens and elaborated why “Respect for your privacy is coded into (their) DNA”  He wrote :

“We built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible: You don’t have to give us your name and we don’t ask for your email address. We don’t know your birthday. We don’t know your home address. We don’t know where you work. We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that.”

We all trusted him, thought that the word would be kept. But the new privacy policy refutes all these claims.

It says :

“We collect device-specific information when you install, access, or use our Services. This includes information such as hardware model, operating system information, browser information, IP address, mobile network information including phone number, and device identifiers. We collect device location information if you use our location features, such as when you choose to share your location with your contacts, view locations nearby or those others have shared with you, and the like, and for diagnostics and troubleshooting purposes such as if you are having trouble with our app’s location features.”

And how are they going to use this information? They make it clear in the policy statement:

“ We will allow you and third parties, like businesses, to communicate with each other using WhatsApp, such as through order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing. For example, you may receive flight status information for upcoming travel, a receipt for something you purchased, or a notification when a delivery will be made. Messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you.”

Though it has been worded beautifully, this certainly means that WhatsApp is going back on its word. They further state:

“Facebook and the other companies in the Facebook family also may use information from us to improve your experiences within their services such as making product suggestions (for example, of friends or connections, or of interesting content) and showing relevant offers and ads. However, your WhatsApp messages will not be shared onto Facebook for others to see. In fact, Facebook will not use your WhatsApp messages for any purpose other than to assist us in operating and providing our Services.”

It is a no brainer that Facebook’s revenue source is data mining, WhatsApp is now just another tool used for the same. In the web, whenever you see the term ‘Free’, please look at it suspiciously. Possibly you are the product and they are selling you to their customers through the services you use.

And do note,

“You agree to (their) information practices, including the collection, use, processing, and sharing of your information as described in (the WhatsApp) Privacy Policy, as well as the transfer and processing of your information to the United States and other countries globally where we have or use facilities, service providers, or partners, regardless of where you use our Services.”

You remember the PRISM project don’t you? The NSA can still access your information!

For the users in USA and Canada, the terms of services also include a jury trial waiver clause, which means that the users are forced to waive their right to the remedies available through the courts and subscribe themselves to binding individual arbitrations. However, for Indians, this is not applicable.

If you haven’t yet updated your app, please don’t accept the terms. Tap ‘read more about whatsapp privacy policy, scroll down and uncheck the ‘share my WhatsApp information with facebook’ checkbox. I case you missed it, within 30 days, you can go Settings > Account > Share my account Information  on the app and disable this.

 

telegram

If you are someone who is concerned about your privacy, you will definitely be looking for an alternative. I too did, and what I found was Telegram.  This is a cloud-based messaging app and was found by Durov brothers who is famous for founding the Russian Social Networking website vk. Quoting the Telegram FAQ, “Pavel supports Telegram financially and ideologically while Nikolai’s input is technological. To make Telegram possible, Nikolai developed a unique custom data protocol, which is open, secure and optimized for work with multiple data-centers.”

“Cloud based” – may raise your eyebrows. Yes. It ‘does’ store the conversations on its servers. (So does Facebook, Gmail, and most other services) But it gives an advantage to telegram over WhatsApp: you can access your chats on multiple devices, which means that unlike WhatsApp, you don’t have to keep your phone connected to the internet to access telegram on your computer. But if you don’t trust the Telegram servers at all, they have a highly encrypted ‘secret message’ option which also features a self-destruct timer. The only disadvantage is that you can’t access your secret chats on other devices, obviously because those are not saved in the cloud. But in my understanding, the normal chat of telegram is also secure because I trust their privacy policy. (This whole article has been written on the presumption that both WhatsApp and Telegram adhere to their policy). It says:

“All data is stored heavily encrypted and the encryption keys in each case are stored in several other DCs in different jurisdictions. This way local engineers or physical intruders cannot get access to user data.”

WhatsApp claims to have enabled end-to-end encryption to its chats, if we believe that, WhatsApp is more secure than the normal telegram chats. But the encrypted secret chats in telegram would be more secure because it has been tested multiple times through their cryptography contests. WhatsApp’s encryption method on the other hand, is undisclosed  and hence is impossible to be peer-reviewed.

Another reason why I trust telegram is that it is an open source project, which means that more eyes are on the code and therefore the likelihood of a vulnerability is far lower. The privacy policy of telegram is revolutionary, which openly says in its introduction that:

“You don’t have to take our word on all of this. Telegram is a open source project. Anyone can study our API, Protocol and Source Code and make an informed decision.”

No, Telegram is not just about privacy and security.

It has wonderful features like botschannels and Supergroups which are potent to revolutionize the way you communicate. You can send all types files on it. With an amazing PC Client and an uber-cool mobile app it easily syncs your work and personal lives.

Last but not the least.

Q: There’s illegal content on Telegram. How do I take it down?

Ans: All Telegram chats and group chats are private amongst their participants. We do not process any requests related to them.

But sticker sets, channels, and bots on Telegram are publicly available. If you find sticker sets or bots on Telegram that you think are illegal, please ping us at abuse@telegram.org

Unlike WhatsApp, Telegram is a cloud-based messenger with seamless sync. As a result, you can access your messages from several devices at once, including tablets and computers, and share an unlimited number of photos, videos and files (doc, zip, mp3, etc.) of up to 1,5 GB each.  Supergroups, which according to the telegram policy is not reviewed by telegram or any other agency  can have up to 5000 members. This is an emerging playground for software and media piracy. Telegram channels and bots are public, many have already been taken down due to copyright violations.

 

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