SK Babu

@babulous

Is Facebook reading my 'encrypted' WhatsApp conversations?

I look for a friend on WhatsApp. A few days later, Facebook mysteriously finds him for me.

On April 23, 2018, my brother asked my help on something. I knew a classmate perfectly placed to advise him. The problem was I had no idea of how to get in touch with him. I know that’s improbable in this era but there were ‘extenuating circumstances.’

The last time I was in touch with my friend was in the last century when we were both still university students. Secondly, I couldn’t google him as I didn’t know his real name. It’s not that odd because we were on first name or rather single name terms, which in India is the name your parents/friends address you by (let’s say his name was Jo, which could stand for Joseph or Jo Wilfried Tsonga). Thirdly, Jo never showed up on social networks or real life Old Boys’ Meetings, having completely buried himself in his job which was his passion. Fourthly, I switched fields myself and lost touch with many of my classmates. Anyway, I told my brother that I would check around and get back to him.

On April 26, 2018, a mail from Facebook popped up as I was shutting down for the day. I normally ignore Facebook mails but Jo’s name jumped out from the subject line. I clicked on the mail, and there was Jo’s face, older, but still unmistakably him. I clicked on the link and it took me to Facebook. It seems he had joined Facebook in 2010, which was around the time I went off it.

Now here’s the thing.

My Facebook and WhatsApp accounts are not linked. They have different phone numbers, and different locations for me, and I had also opted out of data sharing by WhatsApp with Facebook (more on all this later). But three days after I mention Jo’s name in a supposedly end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp conversation with my brother, his name miraculously pops up out of the blue in a mail from Facebook.

A little background. I signed up with Facebook around 2009 to start a Facebook Group for a specific project, and was done with it in a couple of years. I was active on Facebook then but I could never relate to the idea of posting pix of what I ate or where I went or how far I ran. That was nobody’s business but mine. However I was thrilled when a school friend found me on Facebook. So I hung around the platform as a silent observer (no photos, no profile pix updates, a few posts, and just an odd private message via my web browser). I have never asked to ‘friend’ anyone on Facebook. I did get ‘friend suggestions’ emails from Facebook, but never for Jo. I would recall if I did as he’s one of my few classmates who completely dropped off the radar. It’s to find such long lost friends that I still keep the Facebook email notification on. In short, I was the exact opposite of an ideal Facebook user.

I don’t believe in miracles and so that email had my antenna buzzing.

Was there any other way Facebook could have known I was looking for Jo? (I mean, without reading my encrypted WhatsApp conversation). I always sign out of Facebook whenever I use it, as a habit. But Zuckerberg refused to answer the question of whether Facebook tracks you even after you sign out.

The thing was I didn’t know my friend’s actual name. So I hadn’t typed it anywhere except in that one WhatsApp message. I mean you can’t google for someone whose name you don’t know. So that was out. What I did do was physically visit a common friend, and verbally ask him if could get me Jo’s number? Our common friend did send me Jo’s number and I remember adding Jo to my contacts on my phone. But did he send it to me before or after I received the Facebook ‘friend suggestion’ email? A quick look in my inbox confirmed I received it on May 1, which is three days after Facebook’s email.

So that confirms that Facebook could have got Jo’s name only from the encrypted WhatsApp message. The only other possibility is that it was a pure coincidence, which would be an infinitesimally small probability.

In any case, it’s not like it’s the first time something like this has happened with Facebook. I initially signed up with Facebook while I was living outside India, and had a non-Indian phone number. When I moved back to India some years later, I didn’t bother to change my country or update my phone number to my current Indian phone number on Facebook. My profile in Facebook still lists that outdated number and location. But Facebook has somehow tapped my current phone’s contact list, and every now and then sends me Facebook ‘friend suggestions’ from my current phone’s contact list. That would be the phone number which I have not given them.

Of course, the link is the Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014. Everyone in India is on WhatsApp so I had no option but to join the gang. In August 2016, a WhatsApp update gave users 30 days to opt out of sharing data with Facebook, and I made sure to opt out while updating the app. But it seems WhatsApp anyway went ahead and shared my data with Facebook, without my permission. The setting to share WhatsApp data with Facebook no longer appears in WhatsApp, and one probable reason is that the Indian Supreme Court has got involved in the issue. Germany and Italy have also banned the data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook, with Italy even fining WhatsApp €3 million ‘for inducing” users of the messaging service to share its data with Facebook, its parent company’.

Anyway, on April 30, 2018, my eyes catch the below headline.

Here’s a link to the post

Jan Koum obviously quit the moment he realised that Zuckerberg is not backing off on user data privacy issues after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. On the contrary, Zuckerberg seems to have intensified his efforts to encroach on user data privacy.

I understand where Zuckerberg is coming from. No such thing as a free lunch and all that. I know Facebook needs to generate income in some way as they don’t charge users. In fact, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg had mentioned that they had thought about paid subscription at some point. I fully agree with her, and maybe I wouldn’t mind paying a small fee like I do on Medium.

So why did they drop that straightforward path, and stick to the ‘user data’ monetisation route? This despite Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data having probably changed the course of history profoundly, and not for the better.

Greed, of course. It always boils down to human greed for more money.

Let’s take WhatsApp. It currently has 1.5 billion users, and used to have a $0.99 annual subscription. Facebook did away with the subscription after acquiring WhatsApp, probably because competitors weren’t charging a fee.

Let’s assume WhatsApp reintroduced the fee, and as a result loses 90% of of their current 1.5 billion users. The big deal would be WhatsApp will not have to compromise user data. The company would still earn $150 million, and be a viable and profitable business, using just that annual subscription model as its source of income.

What makes this possible is WhatsApp is one of the world’s most efficient entities. In 2015, when it already had 900 millions users, WhatsApp only needed 50 engineers to run the enterprise. Even factoring in all other expenses, my guess is there would still be a lot left of that $150 million.

But that’s peanuts for Facebook, and they must have wanted more even at the cost of risking user data. I guess that was the difference of opinion that caused Jan Koum to quit. Brian Acton, the other co-founder of WhatsApp who had left Facebook earlier had already given an indication of his strong feeling on the subject.

So what’s the way forward? It makes me a little wistful when I see Jan Koum’s thoughts on how they planned to be different when they started WhatsApp.

“When we sat down to start our own thing together three years ago,” Koum wrote, “we wanted to make something that wasn’t just another ad clearing house. We wanted to spend our time building a service people wanted to use because it worked and saved them money and made their lives better in a small way. We knew that we could charge people directly if we could do all those things. We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.”

The WhatsApp founders may have sold out on their ideals when Facebook offered them $19 billion. But though it was belated, I’m happy their conscience pricked them. They have made it clear to the world that WhatsApp is no longer the WhatsApp of the prior Facebook acquisition days.

Here is a comparison of the most popular, secure messaging apps. Brian Acton has in fact pumped in $50 million into Signal, which does not even keep your phone number, forget data. If Brian Acton is really serious about keeping Signal independent and making it the gold standard for privacy, Signal could become an even bigger phenomenon than WhatsApp. The only reason I’m not on Signal is I had a problem with call drops, probably a teething issue.

Telegram, which is popular in Europe is another great alternative. The fact that it’s also a favourite of ISIS is a downer. But then Putin just banned it in Russia. And if Putin says it’s bad, it has to be damn good!

For my part, I love Telegram as it has this great feature that allows me to edit a message after I’ve sent it, on the recipient’s phone. Here’s a little video of it in action. Keep in mind that ‘a’, ‘s’ and ‘d’ are next to each other on the keyboard, and gboard’s autocorrect feature actually did this to me one time. Watch the bottom left corner. It’s on the recipient’s phone.

This is why it’s the perfect messaging app for a person like me who can’t stand a comma out of place. Somewhat paradoxically, I’m addicted to gboard’s swipe-to-type keyboard. That leaves me at the mercy of its autocorrect feature, which is amazing when it works and blooper hell when it doesn’t.

WhatsApp only lets you delete your entire incorrect message, and that too within a small window of time. Whereas all I can say about Telegram’s edit feature is “Why doesn’t every messaging app have this?” and that is the definition of app greatness.

Unfortunately, the majority of India’s messaging community seem unaware of the existence of the comma, and seem happy in their bloopered existence.

So there I leave you with one foot in the Telegram boat, and struggling to disentangle my other foot from the WhatsApp swamp.

Or as the poet put it, ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

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