Zap WhatsApp?

When we talk about social media there are 3 aspects that are universally discussed and debated; Security, Privacy and Confidentiality. Often, we tend to confuse one for the other.

Security: Security protects us from unauthorised persons gaining access to our account, personal data or content. Unauthorised by whom, by the app. Typically they are criminal elements either within the app company or hackers from outside. Their actions are clearly criminal in nature and there are some laws in place under which these people can be prosecuted. Many conscious users devise their own strategies to shield themselves from these criminal elements. Providing an incorrect date of birth or home address is one such strategy.

Privacy: This is personal information and is often necessary to provide the service. When we visit a doctor, we may have to reveal some embarrassing facts about ourselves so that the doctor can provide us the best possible treatment. Doctors are not the only ones we share personal info with, we share it with lawyers, religious and management gurus, friends and confidants, selectively with our colleagues in office and so on. Apps too require us to share some info about ourselves. If you are using maps for navigation you have to inform the app where you are going, that is information that is not exactly personal but something you would tell all and sundry.

Not all personal information is revealed voluntarily. Sometimes people with whom we have a relationship, professional or personal, discover some embarrassing facts about us and could be the ones who reveal it to us. With AI apps will soon develop some kind of capability to discover personal facts that we don’t explicitly reveal to them. I don’t know if there are any laws that govern individual privacy rights.

A popular argument against moving away from WhatsApp is; What have we got to hide from FB that they don’t already know? Now they will get to know what we buy online… And the marketers will send us more spam… This leads to the 3rd aspect.

Confidentiality: Every relationship is built on trust and confidentiality. Why should our relationship with FB/WhatsApp or for that matter any other app be different?

We don’t sign NDAs before revealing personal information to a doctor because there is an implied covenant that the recipient of the information will use it only for the purpose that it was shared and not profit from it. On rare occasions, this covenant is broken and we call that a breach of trust. When our trust is breached, we feel hurt, disappointed and oftentimes much worse too.

The point to note here is that just because somebody comes to know something personal about us that somebody does not automatically become the owner of that information to use as he/she pleases.

Once they know what we eat, what movies we watch, when we sleep, how much we owe and to whom, etc. they can use this knowledge in a myriad of ways. Combine this knowledge with the power to control the form and nature of information we receive and the apps become omnipotent beings. For example, let’s say the app is trying to convince us to buy product P. A friend endorses product P whereas 10 other friends advise against using it. The app can easily flash the endorsement in our faces and just as easily suppress the negative feedback by making it almost impossible to find. We’ve all heard of “fine print”, haven’t we? This is just one way they can manipulate us, I’m sure they have many, more creative ways of manipulating our behaviour and possibly our thoughts too. AI and superfast computing speeds allow for microsecond responses making it impossible for humans to detect data manipulation.

Zap WhatsApp?: So, the question is, should we shun all technology and the conveniences that come with them? Google Maps is a good case in point. We benefit from Google Maps that show us the fastest route from point A to B? It detects traffic jams, road diversions and charts the best route we should take. How does Google Maps detect traffic jams? It does so by tracking the time it takes vehicles to cover a given distances on a particular section of the route. If everyone of us denies Google Maps the right to track our movement it won’t be able to figure out the fastest route, and will be reduced to being a digital atlas, nothing more. Real time tracking of millions of vehicles, even when they are not using Google Maps to navigate is what differentiates it from vanilla maps and makes it a valuable must have application.

To provide this service Google only needs to know the movement of vehicles. Who is driving which vehicle and is that person going to work or party is irrelevant to Google and yet Google, under the guise of guiding us from A to B, stores in its database that I went from A to B at 5 pm on 10th Jan. It goes on the record that I do this every day, 5 times a week but did not perform the trip on 7th Jan. Why does Google store my name and my commute history when it is not required for the purpose of providing me the navigation service I requested? Because, only by storing my name does it become highly valuable personal information about me and now it can profit from my commuting habits.

Should we allow Google to track our movements? Yes. Should they store my personal details too? No, not without my explicit permission. Should Google still provide navigation services even if I withhold my consent? What would be fair to both parties? If Google gives me a choice; pay a fair price for the service or give us your consent to track, store and use you commute history and enjoy the service for free that would be fair to both. Once these options are presented to me, I can make a considered choice. Government should bring in legislation to ensure confidentiality of data the guidelines for sharing it.

WhatsApp offering is offering us a Hobson’s Choice; Either you consent or you leave reminds me the famous Henry Ford quote, “Any colour as long as it’s black.”. That is not a choice, that is a gun held to the head.