Understanding privacy: Governments can work towards creating standard operating guidelines

February 1, 2021 2:30 AM

The biggest beneficiary has been the six-year-old app “Signal” which added 2 million users worldwide within 12 hours of WhatsApp policy change announcement.

It broke all records crossing 40 million users worldwide topping app stores in more 70 countries, including the US.It broke all records crossing 40 million users worldwide topping app stores in more 70 countries, including the US.

By Kanishk Gaur

The recent update in WhatsApp privacy policy has got mixed reactions across the globe, with many questioning the announcement’s intent and timing.

In January 2018, WhatsApp Business was announced, which would allow people to communicate easily and free of cost. The new product was widely accepted worldwide with a surge in messaging to business accounts—crossing more than 175 million messages per day.

WhatsApp supplemented this by launching WhatsApp Business API, which allowed large businesses, SMB’s to respond to their customers faster and keep their inventory up to date to sell products through chats.

The important thing to analyse is how this change impacts businesses and consumers? And, whether end-to-end encryption will still apply to these chats?

All communication on WhatsApp remains end-to-end encrypted; however, if a business decides to use a third party to manage WhatsApp Business API, then end-to-end encrypted doesn’t apply.

The third-party may be hosting and managing conversations, therefore, may apply data science, analytics, machine learning algorithms to analyse chats for effectively analysing consumer’s interaction trends and attributes for marketing.

Since businesses using WhatsApp API have an option to choose a third-party API, they can also consider Facebook’s secure hosting features.

Facebook, like any other hosting service, will monetise these conversations, including advertising on Facebook.

The transition to online presents a tremendous opportunity for businesses to communicate with consumers and effectively serve them via WhatsApp.

While many pundits appreciated and welcomed this public announcement by WhatsApp about this policy update and public disclosure. For countries that don’t have data protection law or a policy to regulate non-personal data governance, this change has been criticised and misunderstood. Many influencers have responded to this change without going into the nitty-gritty of the new policy. This led to a migration to alternate platforms such as Signal and Telegram, which were least prepared to handle the massive rise in traffic.

While WhatsApp’s functionality, users experience, and safety features far exceed the latter two platforms, the narrative of end-to-end encryption and secrecy has many users flocking to these services. WhatsApp, in turn, has pushed the new policy implementation to May.

The biggest beneficiary has been the six-year-old app “Signal” which added 2 million users worldwide within 12 hours of WhatsApp policy change announcement. It broke all records crossing 40 million users worldwide topping app stores in more 70 countries, including the US.

Telegram and Signal have been popular with groups requiring secrecy—investigative journalists, revolutionary groups, anti-establishment communities and leaders of social uprising. However, the design of these platforms also makes them vulnerable to willful misuses.

Violent, extremist groups have found platforms like these are an effective tool to actively propagate hate, vengeance towards vulnerable communities and also recruit members.

It’s important these platforms also look at cooperating with law enforcement agencies. Another aspect these platforms need is an effective monitoring policy that takes care of its users’ safety and trust. Effectively using machine learning algorithm and performing metadata analysis could be one example.

Governments can create a level-playing field for platforms in their countries. EU GDPR regulation is one classic example. Another aspect to understand is that every online-enabled business will ultimately analyse data, be it social media platform or messaging application as businesses cannot sustain on just investor funding or crowdfunding. Hence, effective laws could help countries tackle privacy, trust and safety of users and protect their citizen’s digital identity.

The author is founder, Indian Future Foundation. Views are personal

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