It seems that Facebook is about to reverse years of promises around the integrity and independence of its flagship WhatsApp messaging platform. And coming off the back of the worst year of PR for the social media giant, the implications for the future of WhatsApp could be game-changing.
Some years ago, the first time a politician or intel chief or cabinet minister told you to keep all communications on WhatsApp it came as a surprise. Not for long. Now it has become commonplace. In many of the most sensitive circles and circumstances imaginable, it is the communication tool of choice, trusted for its security and integrity. There are messaging apps that are better known for their security than WhatsApp, such as Signal and Wickr.me, but there are none as ubiquitous or widely used.
More than 1.5 billion users now send more than 65 billion messages daily on WhatsApp – it can genuinely claim to have become the de facto mobile messaging platform, globally.
WhatsApp has also become central to the debates within national security and counter-terrorism focusing on encryption and law enforcement access to data. Platforms like WhatsApp override national intercept arrangements with telcos and internet service providers. This does not sit well with government and law enforcement, even as the individuals who deride the lack of access often rely on the secure messaging themselves.
Driving this level of adoption has been WhatsApp’s ease of use, its perceived security and its lack of clutter and marketing interference. As the service says online: “from day one, we built WhatsApp to help you stay in touch with friends, share vital information during natural disasters, reconnect with separated families, or seek a better life. Some of your most personal moments are shared with WhatsApp, which is why we built end-to-end encryption into our app. When end-to-end encrypted, your messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents, and calls are secured from falling into the wrong hands.”
Now it seems that Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company, is willing to put all of this success at risk. And the reason? Data exploitation, what else.
Facebook has become the world’s messaging powerhouse. Across its own messenger service, Instagram and WhatsApp, the company has three of the world’s leading platforms, servicing 2.6 billion people globally. Now, according to the New York Times, “the [messaging] services will continue to operate as stand-alone apps, but their underlying technical infrastructure will be unified.”
The newspaper also reports that Facebook is looking at increasing the end-to-end encryption across the three services, but the challenge with encryption is that its part technology-based and part trust-based. And trust in Facebook is in short supply. Watch this space for some serious scrutiny around how Facebook deploys encryption whilst balancing the polarized needs of data exploitation and data security.
The $19 billion paid by Facebook for WhatsApp in 2014 always carried the risk of coming home to bite at some point. Perhaps the surprise is that it’s taken this long. The shift for Instagram is less of a surprise. There is a natural linkage between Facebook’s core and the photo-sharing platform that has morphed into an advertising dream for the marketers looking to reach a billion consumers through influencers within every imaginable domain. Instagram’s impact on pop culture has arguably been as extreme as Facebook’s itself. And the photo service has hit the news again this month, with some of the best known of its influencers agreeing to be more open about where they are being paid to promote.
The WhatsApp Difference
For WhatsApp, though, it has seemed much more inured to the pull of Big Data. Ironically, this latest news comes hot on the heels of the announcement that WhatsApp will limit the number of people that a message can be forwarded to in an attempt to stem the tide of fake news. WhatsApp has always been different. Many use the messaging platform without using any other Facebook service. The issues raised at the time of the 2014 acquisition have been largely put to rest by encryption and a lack of scandal. In essence, WhatsApp has been immune to the issues plaguing other social media services. Not for much longer it seems.
Within security and defense, politics and government, the use of WhatsApp for sensitive messages, the use of WhatsApp Groups for wider debate, and its ease for rallying people around a cause, has become commonplace. This is especially true in countries where there is an underlying suspicion that the national telcos ‘hear’ and ‘read’ everything. A change in regime, a change in mood or tone, and the fear is that all those messages might come back to haunt.
With WhatsApp encryption, all that traffic has shifted from SMS messaging to the platform. Wars, invasions, intel operations, national defenses, coups, all have been plotted and strategized on WhatsApp. But maybe not for much longer. And, as a result, this news has gone down about as well as most of the “we’re doing this for you, people, honestly” announcements that come from Facebook HQ following bright ideas from ‘Zuck’.
Earlier this month, the ’10-year challenge’ meme morphed from harmless fun to implied facial recognition training scam in a matter of days. Last year we had Cambridge Analytica and scandals linking Facebook data to Russia and accusations of third-party interference in election campaigns including Trump and Brexit.
In 2014, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum famously said of the Facebook acquisition: “this will give WhatsApp the flexibility to grow and expand… And you can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication. There would have been no partnership between our two companies if we had to compromise on the core principles that will always define our company, our vision and our product.”
Last year, Koum followed co-founder Brian Acton out of the door over disagreements around privacy and data security. At its core, the two platforms have fundamentally different objectives. So, quite what will happen is unclear. Many users are now claiming they will delete the app, but that’s easier said than done. Entire companies operate at leadership levels with the immediacy and cross-platform ease of WhatsApp. Will they trust it, in the same way, moving forwards? And if they don’t, which of the alternatives will seize on this opportunity to fill the gap? Brian Acton donated $50 million to Signal on leaving Facebook – is that telling?
Ultimately, the pull of Big Data seemingly always wins in the end. The ‘surveillance capitalism’ as defined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff is quite clear that where people are the product, this is all predictably inevitable. “Nearly every product or service that begins with the word ‘smart’ or ‘personalised’, every internet-enabled device, every ‘digital assistant’, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioral data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy,” she told the Guardian’s John Naughton.
The question for WhatsApp is how it can possibly ride this out and remain intact. The irresistible force has now definitely met the immovable object.