The app seems to be a “land without laws” for the speed and volume of content that spreads without scruples says the writer
The app seems to be a “land without laws” for the speed and volume of content that spreads without scruples says the writer

Beware of WhatsApp’s potential dangers

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 16, 2020

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OPINION - POLICE are at liberty to stop a driver at a roadblock and check the blood-alcohol limit; examine the driving licence; search the vehicle for illegal weapons, illicit drugs and stolen goods; and verify if the car is stolen or not.

Cash-in-transit heists are well-planned criminal operations, executed with military-style planning and precision.

It takes weeks for the robbers to work out which money-laden truck to hit, where and when.

Of course, the crooks don’t use smoke signals to communicate plans with fellow gang members. Face-to-face meetings can arouse suspicion. Hence, much of the plotting is done on the phone.

I am certain that rather than making calls using network service providers such as MTN or Vodacom, criminals use WhatsApp to make free calls. Text messages, too, must be exchanged on the popular mobile phone app. How nice if the police can be permitted to look for criminal evidence in WhatsApp voice and text messages. I am certain many criminals will be apprehended and the crime levels will fall drastically.

Now visualise this WhatsApp message between two close friends: “I trust you Saroj and that’s why I can confide in you. All the items of jewellery we reported missing, including my grandma’s 22-carat sovereign necklace, are in the vault. My Rajan organised fake receipts for the jewellery and we got an insurance payout of R350 000. One day we can melt the gold - it will be big money. You must ask your Roshan to pull a job like this. Then what we paying premiums for?”

If only the insurance company had access to WhatsApp messages, fraudulent claims can be tracked.

Contrary to popular belief, the text message to our fictional Saroj is not private or safe. In many parts of the world, law enforcement agencies are increasingly accessing and using WhatsApp chats as incriminating evidence.

As stated in the WhatsApp privacy policy, WhatsApp “may collect, use, preserve, and share user information if we have a good-faith belief that it is reasonably necessary to (a) keep our users safe, (b) detect, investigate, and prevent illegal activity, and (c) respond to legal process, or to government requests”.

Recently, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said hackers found “naughty” WhatsApp messages between herself and her husband. Her private and confidential information was said to be in the hands of an unknown third party.

“This illegal activity has been reported to relevant authorities and platform owners for action,” said her spokesperson.

Surely if hackers can gain access to WhatsApp messages, the police can do the same.

There is the case in Wales of police who were able to solve a drug case with a photograph of just three fingers. They arrested a group of drug dealers. During their investigation, they intercepted WhatsApp messages from one of the dealers which identified other potential suspects and drug sales.

One message featured a photograph of a hand holding several ecstasy tablets. There were also texts asking customers: “What do you want to buy?”

However, the police could not figure out whose hand was in the photo.

The police department’s scientific support unit enhanced the photo and made digital fingerprints based on the digits shown in the picture. Lo and behold, the prints matched those of a suspect in the police database. He and his parents were sentenced to eight-and-a half-years in prison over the drug scheme.

Videos of celebrities in compromising positions, politicians in embarrassing situations, supposedly confidential documents and copyrighted books are part of the large content archive that is spread by messages on WhatsApp. The app seems to be a “land without laws” for the speed and volume of content that spreads without scruples.

But take note that while South Africa may be turning a blind eye and choosing not to police the digital highways for now, it cannot be too long before Big Brother scans WhatsApp for clues relating to anything illegal. On the one hand, there is concern that privacy, which is a fundamental right of citizens, will be violated by law enforcement agencies, resulting in a surveillance state. On the other, the authorities can claim they are entitled to use whatever means possible to extract crime-related evidence.

A few months ago, India was transfixed by the investigation into the suspicious death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

Besides the personal interrogations, most of the evidence in the case has been in the form of WhatsApp chats of persons close to Rajput and a chain of others on the issue of the consumption and supply of drugs.

The Narcotics Control Bureau cloned the cellphones of Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and others, which gave them access to the WhatsApp chats of movie stars.

The bureau, which began investigating a drug angle in the death, used Chakraborty’s alleged chat with a drug pedlar to arrest her.

WhatsApp conversations of top actors such as Deepika Padukone were also released in the public realm, feeding the impression that drug abuse is rampant in the Mumbai film industry.

After a spate of leaked WhatsApp chats in several countries, the instant messaging application has reiterated that messages on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted so that only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between can access it.

WhatsApp has quickly emerged as the go-to messaging app for more than 1.6 billion consumers around the globe. It’s a fast, simple and convenient way for family and friends to chat, create group texts, share photos and videos, send and receive documents, and engage in conversations any time, day or night.

When WhatsApp was launched, people complained about the price of SMS texts. Before long, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) killed SMS. The potential dangers of WhatsApp are similar to those of any other devices or apps that allow for online interaction, as it can be used for sexting, cyberbullying or other issues.

While WhatsApp is cheap (you only pay for data) and is convenient, remember it is not 100% private. With data privacy laws being as lax as they are, privacy in the digital ecosystem is almost a myth.

The internet never sleeps and the internet never forgets.

Every activity we perform online leaves behind an electronic footprint, which can be used as evidence if needed. The only way to ensure you are safe in the virtual world, is to try to be ethical, moral and on the right side of the law.

Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Reach him on: [email protected]


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