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This is how to explain new WhatsApp privacy policy changes to your mom

File picture: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

File picture: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Published Jan 12, 2021


By Sam Wright

By now you’re likely very aware that WhatsApp, the popular messenger app most people use on their smartphones, has pushed a privacy policy update. You have until 8 February to accept the new policy or you won’t be able to use the app any more. Social media is heaving with people losing their minds about the so called invasion of privacy and Telegram, another messenger app, has taken to meme’ing WhatsApp as their user base swells.

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I’m not here to tell you to burn your smartphone, use all your money to buy gold and bury it in your backyard (that was a Swanson reference, yes).

I am going to try break down these privacy policy changes to help you better explain it to your mom. From what I’ve seen online, a lot of the hysteria is coming from people who maybe aren’t really aware of how the social platforms they use operate or what they’ve already agreed to.

Whatsapp is owned by Facebook. Facebook owns lots of stuff. But to keep this simple:

Imagine Whatsapp is your local Woolies store. You know, the one you buy your milk from? Facebook is Woolies head office. The place you never really need to deal with unless your name is Karen but the place that makes sure your milk gets to your local store.

When checking out of the store one day the cashier asks you if you want a loyalty card. Because you shop there most weeks you agree and fill out a form with all your personal contact information. In return you’re issued a card with a number. The personal information and that card number are sent to Woolies head office. Woolies head office can now record what you buy, how much you spend and how often you buy. This is recorded on your card and head office has that information. When you check out, head office and the local store communicate to give you discounts and record that information. Head office uses this information to determine what products sell the best and what sort of promotions might encourage you to spend more.

While you’re checking out of the store you have a conversation with the teller about the weather. Woolies head office doesn’t have this information and can’t record that you don’t go to the store when it is raining. Consider that conversation the content of the messages you send on WhatsApp (like cute cat pictures).

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Here’s how the new privacy policy works:

Facebook is Woolies head office. Whatsapp is your local store. Whatsapp will send Facebook your “till slip”. That till slip includes:

Your name, profile picture and other about information you’ve inputted into the app

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– Your phone number

– How often you use WhatsApp

– Which features you use (if you’re in lots of groups or are active on the stories feature or how often you update your status)

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– What phone you use

– What mobile network you use and your IP address

– It can also access location information (and determine which “store” you’re at)

– This means when you go to any local store (your Facebook app or Instagram) you might start seeing adverts that are more tailored for you. For example, you’ll stop seeing adverts for Samsung phones and rather iPhone chargers, because Facebook now knows you use an iphone.

What about your text messages?

Remember that conversation about the weather that head office can’t see? RIGHT NOW, Facebook can’t see the chats you’re having with your friends. These are encrypted and that means they can’t read your weather conversation. They can’t see you sharing pictures of your puppy with Janet. However, if you’re in a WhatsApp group sharing pictures, they know you are in a group with Janet. Making sense?

It’s a bit more complicated than that

WhatsApp does have a business offering now. And this is where the privacy policy gets confusing. If you engage with businesses on WhatsApp (the app does tell you if you’re dealing with a registered business account). WhatsApp Business allows you to transact through the app, make purchases or have a business send you something like Flight Tickets. While Facebook isn’t storing those messages, the business will be able to send you adverts and deals on other Facebook platforms once your data is recorded (which happens when you interact with them and actually happens if you just visit their website these days, via something called a pixel – but that’s an explanation for another day. Basically mom, the whole internet is recording what you do). The business could also be using third party suppliers to store information meaning if you use Whatsapp to book a flight, for example, you could start getting phone calls or messages or even Facebook adverts from that third party who now has a record that you interacted with the business on WhatsApp.

You won’t receive adverts or unsolicited WhatsApps from annoying mobile phone companies or insurance companies you’ve never dealt with… yet. The privacy policy is open ended in this regard and at some point it could happen, but right now Facebook says it won’t (for the time being).

Advice to mom

Remember, if a service is free you’re the product. While the option remains to move to another messenger app and delete your WhatsApp and any other Facebook owned app – at some point the new messenger service could also move to this sort of model. Right now Zuckerberg can’t see your puppy pictures and you’re not going to get an influx of messages from people or businesses you don’t know (if you do, just delete them, don’t engage). But much like you gave your phone number and physical address to Woolies Head Office for potential discounts, in order to use WhatsApp you’re giving away select personal data.

Sam "Tech Girl" Wright is an esports shoutcaster and content creator in South Africa, you can see more of her content here.


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