Issue 95

It's time to uninstall WhatsApp

Delivered on 11 January 2021 by Justin Pyvis. About a 5 min read.

If you use WhatsApp it's probably because it works well, is easy to use and best of all it's end-to-end encrypted (WhatsApp is encrypted with the Signal protocol - but Facebook holds the encryption keys). But you might want to consider changing.

Facebook has in the past denied that it uses the data captured by WhatsApp. However, it recently announced that on 8 February that will all change, with WhatsApp updating its privacy policy to allow Facebook to collect:

  • user phone numbers;
  • anything stored in your phone's address book;
  • profile names and pictures;
  • status messages, including when a user was last online;
  • diagnostic data collected from app logs; and
  • share that data with other Facebook companies.

The weaknesses in WhatsApp's implementation of the Signal protocol mean that Facebook will now have enough information to build comprehensive profiles of anyone who uses it, even if they're not on Facebook. That's because other than the list above, WhatsApp already captures unencrypted metadata such as group names and descriptions, when you add a new member or remove an existing one, all images, who talks to whom, how frequently and at what times.

In addition, I've written before about WhatsApp's automatic backup feature, which uploads all of your content to its servers without client-side encryption, meaning anything backed up is fully available to Facebook (why do you think they prompt you to enable it every month?).

The good news is that there's an alternative: Signal. It's also encrypted with the Signal protocol, is open source (so you can be sure there are no backdoors) and has all of the functionality of WhatsApp. Here's a look at the two side-by-side, using Apple's privacy report, with Signal up first:

Now here's WhatsApp:

Please don't give Facebook any more information: it's time to uninstall WhatsApp! If you have any friends that refuse to switch, forward them this email or send them a link to it on the website.

Platform or Publisher, take 3

Are the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube platforms or publishers? I've asked the question twice before (2019, 2020), concluding that while "there is no debate that social media began as a platform. [But] by moving in a direction so far beyond the content moderation threshold dictated by social norms they have laid the groundwork to one day be forced to surrender their platform status".

Twitter and Facebook have increasingly been moderating the content of their users, culminating in Twitter's permanent suspension of Donald Trump's account last week. It's important to clarify that Twitter is free to ban - sorry, 'permanently suspend' - whomever it wants. Twitter owns Twitter and no one has a 'right' to use it; this is not a free speech issue. But that hasn't stopped lawmakers such as Lindsey Graham misreading the situation and doubling down against Donald Trump's pet peeve, Section 230:

To be clear, removing Section 230 - which protects social media platforms from the content their users post - will not do what Lindsey Graham thinks it will do. Had Section 230 not existed during the Trump Presidency, Twitter would have been liable for his tweets and he would have been banned many years ago (or Twitter would have been sued into oblivion). In fact, removing Section 230 will result in more Republicans being banned from Twitter, not less.

I do worry that Twitter's actions and its gradual shift towards being a publisher will eventually bite it in the backside. It's on a slippery slope of content moderation that will be hard to stop. Facebook and even Apple and Google are also on the slope, with the latter two last week suspending 'free speech' social media platform Parler from their respective app stores due to a failure to remove "egregious content"... in other words, by being too much like a platform and not enough of a publisher? To add insult to injury Amazon withdrew its web hosting service, knocking the entire platform offline.

I'm not sure how this is going to play out. Where do the creators of "egregious content", such as Donald Trump, vent their frustrations? Left-leaning platforms such as Twitter will ban them, and Google and Apple are gatekeeping Wild West alternatives such as Parler.

Could this be the Fediverse's moment to shine? How about a blockchain-based social media platform? What about a revival of blogs or newsletter platforms such as Substack (is Donald Trump capable of writing more than 280 characters at a time)? There's now enough latent demand out there to support something outside the status quo, I just don't know what form it will take.

Meet the world's new richest man

Elon Musk is now wealthier than Jeff Bezos. On paper, anyway. The story of Tesla has been nothing short of remarkable. Fuelled by record low interest rates, government cash handouts and other forms of demand stimulus, lockdowns limiting people's ability to spend on consumption, and micro trading apps such as Robinhood, Tesla stock has found itself as the pre-eminent speculative asset of choice:

It now has a price/earnings ratio approaching 2,000 (well above the S&P 500's historical average of around 15), meaning people are betting not just on future growth but gargantuan future growth.

I just cannot see a world in which that is possible (Godzilla wiping out Toyota?). Enjoy it while it lasts, Elon!

Singapore misuses COVID-19 tracing data

Most governments around the world 'guaranteed' that COVID-19 tracing app data would not be misused. Guess what? It's being misused:

To encourage people to enrol, Singaporean authorities promised the data would never be used for any other purpose, saying "the data will never be accessed, unless the user tests positive for Covid-19 and is contacted by the contact tracing team".

But Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan told parliament on Monday that it can in fact also be used "for the purpose of criminal investigation".

There was just no way that politically influential groups such as the police would be able to resist the honey pot that is coronavirus tracing app location data. I expect this to start happening in many other countries (if it hasn’t already).

Politically legislated protections and guarantees can and will be undermined. Only install fully transparent, ideally open source contact tracing apps.

Issue 95: It's time to uninstall WhatsApp was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 11 January 2021.