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WhatsApp denies its privacy update will violate privacy of users

Yehia El Amine

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WhatsApp has been at the epicenter of worldwide backlash and controversy in the first week of 2021 following their announcement of updating their privacy policy, which many around the globe found to be too intrusive.

Under the terms of the new policy, Facebook will be able to collect users’ data from the app such as their phone number, email address, contacts, location, device ID, user ID, advertising data, purchase history, product interaction, payment info, crash, performance, and other diagnostic data, customer support, and metadata.

Users will have until February 8, 2021 to accept the new terms of service or will lose their account permanently.

In response to the backlash, the popular instant messaging app published a statement to address the hailstorm of worries and enact some damage control while the iron is hot.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data,” the statement by WhatsApp said.

WhatsApp is the biggest instant messaging app in the world with a global user base of 2.5 billion.

The statement titled “the privacy and security of your personal messaging” tackled a myriad of issues and red flags that triggered privacy alarms from people from all professions and walks of life over its ultimatum approach.

“We can’t see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook: Neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can read your messages or hear your calls with your friends, family, and co-workers on WhatsApp. Whatever you share, it stays between you,” the statement read.

The social media giant explained that the messages displayed on the app are always protected by end-to-end encryption, since they “will never weaken this security and we clearly label each chat, so you know our commitment.”

WhatsAppst stressed that it does not keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling, saying that “while traditionally mobile carriers and operators store this information, we believe that keeping these records for two billion users would be both a privacy and security risk and we don’t do it.”

The messaging app indicated that it cannot see people’s shared location neither can its parent company Facebook, citing end-to-end encryption as the security layer protecting it.

“We don’t share your contacts with Facebook; when you give us permission, we access only the phone numbers from your address book to make messaging fast and reliable, and we don’t share your contacts lists with the other apps Facebook offers,” the statement continued.

The company elaborated that group chats on the app will remain private, since group memberships are used to deliver messages and to protect our service from spam and abuse. “We don’t share this data with Facebook for ads purposes. Again, these private chats are end-to-end encrypted so we can’t see their content,” it continued.

The statement stressed that the new privacy policy will mainly tackle WhatsApp Business, noting that the company will always be clear through the app of these new features when users communicate with business accounts.

The social media titan explained that these business accounts need to use hosting services to manage their communication, thus, giving them the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts.

“But whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook,” the statement read.

However, WhatsApp explained that people who choose to interact with shops, shopping activity can be used to personalize the experience and the ads seen on Facebook and Instagram. “Features like this are optional and when you use them, we will tell you in the app how your data is being shared with Facebook,” the statement stressed.

Although the statement addressed many fundamental details regarding their privacy update, the company still hasn’t answered the broader question behind the need to access private data such as battery level, ISP information, IP Address, phone IDs and many more.

Many cybersecurity experts around the world consider that the social media titan already has de-encryption algorithms that work on surfacing private user data for commercial use. To the extent where WhatsApp’s co-founder Jan Koum resigned as CEO in 2018 in protest of Facebook’s strategy of monetizing personal data.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also appeared in front of the U.S. 116th Congress, and the EU Parliament several times to testify about these tactics and strategies that  placed the platform under fire worldwide.

Be that as it may, the approach taken by WhatsApp is shady to say the least, giving users an ultimatum of handing in their data or leaving the app without a choice of opting is an eyebrow raiser in and of itself.

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Yehia is an investigative journalist and editor with extensive experience in the news industry as well as digital content creation across the board. He strives to bring the human element to his writing.

Technology

WhatsApp delays privacy update until May 15

Yehia El Amine

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privacy update

After a hailstorm of controversy, WhatsApp announced on Friday that it will push back its privacy update till May 15, the delay is intended to allow users ample time to review the new conditions.

Initially, the update had required people to agree to the new privacy policy by February 8 or see their accounts shutdown should they refuse. Matters became even more confusing when the company said that it partnered with Facebook on new “integrations,” without specifically saying how the data sharing process would work.

“We’re now moving back the date on which people will be asked to review and accept the terms. No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp,” the company said in a statement.

User backlash was driven further forward due to the spread of misinformation which stated that WhatsApp could now read people’s conversations and other personal data. “There’s been a lot of misinformation causing concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and the facts,” the statement read.

The controversy around the update instantly spread worldwide, as many users began to migrate to rival alternative messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram.

Mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower said last week that Signal saw 17.8 million app downloads on Apple and Google during the week of Jan. 5 to Jan. 12. That’s a 61-fold increase from just 285,000 the previous week.

Telegram, an already-popular messaging app for people around the world, saw 15.7 million downloads in the Jan. 5 to Jan. 12 period, roughly twice the 7.6 million downloads it saw the previous week.

WhatsApp, meanwhile, saw downloads shrink to 10.6 million, down from 12.7 million the week before.

Facebook execs, such as Instagram head Adam Mosseri and WhatsApp lead Will Cathcart, attempted to quell the bleeding, as they took to Twitter to clear up the confusion, but with little to no avail.

It is worth mentioning that the sudden worldwide flare up against WhatsApp could be attributed to a deeply routed problem of trust, or lack thereof.

Facebook has a notorious track record when it comes to digital privacy, to the extent of which its CEO Mark Zuckerberg has frequently testified in front of the U.S. Congress and EU Parliament for that matter.

While the company has clarified time and again that the update will not affect users when talking to friends and family, many refuse to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt.

Since its acquisition by Facebook in 2014, Zuckerberg left WhatsApp to operate as an independent entity, which would take advantage of its parent company’s infrastructure and resources.

That arrangement allowed the instant messaging app to flourish, gaining billions of news users worldwide.

However, the approach has changed over the years, as both of WhatsApp’s founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, left the company in 2018 due to a falling out with the Facebook CEO. Since then, efforts of stitching together messaging services of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp have increased, in the hopes of strengthening their e-commerce presence online.  

The fact that WhatsApp has, over time, turned its sights on monetizing the platform for its large international user base, has eroded trust in the chat app, which, in turn, has had the effect of turning a relatively mundane update into a worldwide controversy.

While Facebook has doubled down on its mission to combat misinformation on the platform, the furor over WhatsApp’s privacy changes is bitterly ironic, seeing that its hands are tied due to the closed and private nature of the service.

WhatsApp has begun sharing graphics in multiple languages detailing exactly what the privacy policy update will mean, as well as giving users a three-month delay to better communicate and explain the changes.

“We’re now moving back the date on which people will be asked to review and accept the terms…We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15,” the statement highlighted.

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Step aside WhatsApp; there is a new sheriff in town

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“Come, Watson, come, the game is afoot.”

This phrase from the famous fictional detective character Sherlock Holmes sums up the fierce race between the popular WhatsApp messenger and other rivals, who have gained spectacular demand in the past few months.

In recent weeks and even months, the founders of WhatsApp have noticed with alarm a growing trend among many of its dedicated users to shift to other messenger apps on mobile phones such as Signal and Telegram.

The reasons behind the surge in the number of users of the new apps can be attributed to many reasons, starting from WhatsApp’s intention to alter its privacy act on February 8, to the mounting resentment of  U.S. President Donald Trump supporters after several leading tech and platform companies decided to ban the president from using any leading social media outlet under the pretext that Trump could incite violence.

 No matter what the real motives behind the rising demand for new apps, WhatsApp’s board of directors are facing their biggest challenge: Keeping their loyal users who have exceeded 2.5 billion accounts around the world.

However, this task may not be easy to achieve in a short period of time as many dedicated users of platforms now see an abundant and wide range of apps on mobile phones.

Just like in life, people are willing to change their habits and routine.

People may be willing to drop a certain brand of coffee or chocolate if any company succeeded in convincing the consumers that their products are as good as any item on the shelves of supermarkets.

This same simple principle can be applied to apps because in the eyes of the people, these apps have turned into a useful tool to communicate with people and even promote products.

We in the tech industry remember when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in February 2014.

The price tag has even stunned many tech companies around the world, with some wondering if WhatsApp really worth all this money and was it a good investment?

“For months, the company had been tracking WhatsApp obsessively using Onavo, a VPN and data analytics app, whose data showed that the messaging app was not just a rising competitor, but a potential Facebook killer,” according to one article.

According to the Associated Press, Encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram are seeing huge upticks in downloads from Apple and Google’s app stores. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, by contrast, is seeing its growth decline following a fiasco that forced the company to clarify a privacy update it had sent to users.

Mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower said last week that Signal saw 17.8 million app downloads on Apple and Google during the week of Jan. 5 to Jan. 12. That’s a 61-fold increase from just 285,000 the previous week. Telegram, an already-popular messaging app for people around the world, saw 15.7 million downloads in the Jan. 5 to Jan. 12 period, roughly twice the 7.6 million downloads it saw the previous week.

WhatsApp, meanwhile, saw downloads shrink to 10.6 million, down from 12.7 million the week before.

“Experts believe the shift may reflect a rush of conservative social media users seeking alternatives to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and the now-shuttered right-wing site Parler. The mainstream sites suspended President Donald Trump last week and have tightened enforcement on violent incitement and hate speech,” AP said.

Parler, meanwhile, was unceremoniously booted from the internet after Apple and Google banned it from their app stores for failing to moderate incitement.

Amazon then cut Parler off from its its cloud-hosting service. Experts worry that these moves could lead to more ideological splintering and further hide extremism in the dark corners of the internet, making it harder to track and counteract.

“WhatsApp didn’t do itself any favors when it recently told users that if they don’t accept a new privacy policy by Feb. 8, they’ll be cut off. The notice referenced the data WhatsApp shares with Facebook, which while not entirely new, may have struck some users that way,” the agency said.

But despite the surge in the download of new apps, Whatsapp is still by far the most popular messaging app of the three, and so far there’s no evidence of a mass exodus.

Sensor Tower estimates that Signal has been installed about 58.6 million times globally since 2014. In that same period Telegram has seen about 755.2 million installations and whatsapp a whopping 5.6 billion – almost eight times as many as Telegram.

But time will tell if the new boys will be able to gain the same momentum.

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The year when smartphones dominated

Yehia El Amine

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The year when smartphones dominated

The year 2020 will always be remembered as the year where the world’s population locked itself indoors to ward off COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year will also be remembered as the year that smartphones became one of the few tools for communication, playing games, downloading apps and accessing news and information in most countries around the world.

The year welcomed more downloads than ever before, with apps specifically focusing on influencing user discovery.

According to U.S.-based analytics firm App Annie, during 2020, time spent on mobile surged at 4.2 hours on Android, which amounted to 3.5 trillion hours in total, a figure up by 20 percent and 25 percent respectively from 2019.

“The world has forever changed. While people stay at home across the world, we saw mobile habits accelerate by three years,” said Theodore Krantz, Chief Executive Officer of App Annie.

Cohesive brand and reputation, combined with a seamlessly connected user experience, continues to drive new user acquisition in an increasingly competitive market.

As the year elapsed, demand for new apps and games consistently jumped seven percent YoY, reaching 218 billion download globally. This increase can be determined by consumers migrating more of their physical needs onto mobile, as spending hit new heights at $143 billion.

“37 percent of app users we surveyed reported they found a new app through a friend or family member. 67 percent of users agree when discovering and purchasing new apps they trust what they learn from online research, and 50 percent only consider well-known apps,” Imma Calvo Managing Director of Apps at Google, said in the App Annie report.

It is worth mentioning that mobile is the only channel with this level reach and depth of engagement.

In the U.S. alone, eight percent of people spent more time on mobile than watching live TV daily. “The average American watched 3.7 hours of live TV a day, whereas they spent 4 hours on their mobile device in H2 2020. The weighted average among countries analyzed for time spent surpassed 4 hours 10 minutes during the pandemic,” the report highlighted.

In the streaming sphere, popular Chinese video sharing app TikTok and Google’s YouTube reigned supreme over rivals.

According to App Annie’s report, TikTok easily outpaced top social networking apps in hours per user, registering a whopping 325 percent in YoY growth.

TikTok ranked in the top 5 by time spent and its average monthly time spent per user grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 70 percent in the US and 80 percent in the UK — surpassing Facebook. TikTok is on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021.

During 2020, 40 percent more hours were streamed on mobile phones, with time spent peaking in Q2 of 2020 in the west as the first wave of COVID-19 forced people inside.

“By 2021 and in the new normal, the average mobile streamer in the US, South Korea and the UK will download 85 percent, 80 percent and 60 percent more video streaming apps, respectively, compared to pre-pandemic levels,” the report explained.

In parallel, YouTube witnessed a surge in time spent per user on the platform, which is 6x increase from last year, recording a watch time of 38 hours a month.

While YouTube was one of the most dominating forces in the video streaming industry across all markets except China, Amazon’s Twitch made headways against many video streaming platforms, which showcases the rise of user-generated content, live streams, and e-sports. 

The increase in demand for apps and games resulted in 97 percent of publishers monetizing through the iOS App Store earned <$1 million per annum and would benefit from Apple’s App Store small business program — reducing fees from 30 percent to 15 percent.

“Many publishers — particularly gaming publishers — roll up under larger companies or parent companies and monetize across both stores — taking home much more per year in aggregate,” the report added.

According to data by market research firm Crunchbase, $73 billion in investment capital poured into mobile companies, reporting at 26 percent YoY growth in 2020. These investments were mainly led by financial services, transportation, e-commerce, and shopping.

“Investments in companies with a mobile solution represent 26 percent of total global funding dollars in 2020, per Crunchbase data. Mobile has driven consumer and enterprise technology innovation with geo-location, cloud services and Artificial Intelligence, creating leading companies in transportation, financial services, health care and entertainment,” Gené Teare Data Researcher Crunchbase, said in the report.

Throughout the year, smartphones and mobile services fueled 45 percent more financial engagement, as consumers quickly opted for contactless digital payments in light of the pandemic.

“Time spent in Finance apps during 2020 was up 45 percent worldwide outside of China in 2020 YoY. Whether leveraging wallet apps, financial services like loans, shopping for major purchases like a car or a house, or investing in the market, FinTech apps are in high demand and a critical part of the decision-making process for consumers,” the App Annie report explained.

Within the gaming industry, core gamers mainly chose mobile consoles at home, account for 66 percent of spending, and 55 percent of time spent on mobile games.

“Casual games dominate downloads with the popularity of easy- to-use names like Among Us, ROBLOX and My Talking Tom Friends. APAC drives a significant portion of spend and time spent among Core games, yet Console and PC-gone-mobile titles bridge the West into Core mobile gaming,” the report noted.

Mobile gaming is on track to surpass $120 billion in consumer spend in 2021 — capturing 1.5x of the market compared to all other gaming platforms combined.

As humanity is still not completely out of the woods in terms of the pandemic, experts forecast that while the world enters into an economic recession, technology will continue to accelerate forward regardless of the events surrounding the human race. 

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