I am uninstalling all Facebook apps, including WhatsApp - here's why

It was in 2017 that I first wrote about Facebook's potential listening to our private conversations in an article Use Facebook on your Android device? Better watch out. Very soon I was convinced that Facebook need not have to listen to your conversations (although I still believe it does) to get all the information it needs to show its very intrusive advertisements. The result was that I uninstalled Facebook and its Messenger app from my phone.

[Image Sources: Provided in the footnotes]

By "intrusive", what I mean is bringing up things outside one's life in a particular app, or an eco-system. It is indeed very creepy, at least for me, to have browsed Amazon for a pair of shoes and the ads of the shoes follow me everywhere even when all what I want is to see some pics from my friends. Worse still is to be subjected to frequent advertisements on things about which I had only spoken with my family, or had a chat with my friend.

In spite of removing Facebook and Messenger from my phone, I continued to use it via the browser. And I still had WhatsApp and Instagram installed on the phone though those were acquired by Facebook and branded as Facebook products. I misplaced my trust that common ethics prevented Facebook from applying its policies on someone else's work that it happened to own. But soon I realized I was wrong, at least about Instagram when Instagram too started showing the very same intrusive advertisements. 

Instagram had another issues as well. One would understand that if you take a look at the explore section in Instagram which is highly targeted based on a person's gender, ethnicity, age, and even their activity on Facebook, apart from the user behavior such as posts, stories, and likes. For example, men of young age tend to get images of women, and many women actually get a lot of images about garments in their Explore feeds, all without any trigger action from the users themself - exactly the same way how Facebook operates by serving targeted content. Either way, the feeds naturally tend to make a stereotype out of a collective behavior and replacing ethical concerns with only engagement matrices that reflected on revenue.

Although I did continue to use Instagram by confining to only my normal feed and posting photographs that I click, setting daily app limits and mentally restricting me from forgoing the app-limit locks. However, soon I had Instagram too also out from my phone, leaving WhatsApp the only app from Facebook that I have installed.

WhatsApp was indeed an exception all these years that never felt truly Facebook in spite of the "from Facebook" text struck on to the splash screen. WhatsApp was founded with strict privacy concerns in mind, charging its users with a meager Rs. 50 instead of collecting private data pertaining to the users. When Facebook acquired WhatsApp back in 2014, the official WhatsApp policy was to know as little as possible about the users. The introduction of features like end-to-end chat encryption was considered to further reinforce this policy, although certain experts were always skeptical of the adherence. Either way, WhatsApp was in itself as least intrusive as possible.

However, the new updates to the policies that is being forced on to the users "makes them agree" to expand sharing the user's data with other Facebook-owned and third party applications and companies. The policy update comes with a condition that if the user refuses to share the data, they would have to quit WhatsApp. With the bringing of payments and shopping to WhatsApp, the company is not only violating a user-experience principle of separation-of-concerns, rather the privacy concerns emerging out of the new policy updates in this regards is far from one that can be dismissed.

Due to its frequent use as a video/audio calling application, even those who are mindful of privacy like me would possibly have extended permissions like microphone access, camera access and background-running enabled for WhatsApp. This could make WhatsApp the preferred means of data collection for Facebook, at a much larger scale than what Facebook has ever done with its own app or Instagram. 

Even more frightening is the prospect of extending the intrusive advertisements to WhatsApp. Imagine you have recently been casually interested in a product, and thereafter being haunted by WhatsApp "messages" insisting to buy the product. The idea of targeted boosting of Facebook posts through WhatsApp is yet another nightmare, which in itself could be very detrimental to psychological health, particularly at a time when more-and-more people are dropping off from Facebook citing emotional and psychological effects as per studies conducted by Stanford and NYU.

The bottom-line is Facebook has been changing the way it accessed the users data, every time being creepier than before. While Facebook itself and Instagram can be dispensable for the general public, WhatsApp has become an integral part of the life. With the "take it, or leave" policy Facebook puts on the table, continuing usage of WhatsApp is more akin to a forced one at a time when Facebook is already insensitive to the global outcry for its privacy violations and targeted campaigns. Hopefully there are now alternatives like Signal available to fill in the gap.

Signal is a free and open source, privacy respecting instant messaging application which was recently endorsed by Edward Snowden himself, the famous whistleblower and the president of Freedom-of-Press foundation. Signal provides almost all features of WhatsApp like encrypted instant messaging, group chats and secure audio/video calls. In addition there are desktop applications available that makes it easier to access on multiple devices, all while taking privacy and security pretty serious. The Android version supports backing up and restoring chats, although this feature is not yet available to Apple devices. One serious thing the WhatsApp enthusiasts could miss is the stories feature. There are no such features yet available in Signal or Telegram app for that matter. However, I find the stories more distracting and addictive albeit the social connect it facilitates.

I am yet to find good alternatives for Facebook and Instagram, where I can meaningfully socialize in the virtual world and still remain happy, but its definitely fine to leave without. However, the policy updates to WhatsApp really has got me off guard and made me hastily look for alternatives. But at the end, I am very happy that I found Signal to fill the gap, and get rid of the Facebook eco-system altogether from my phone. However, this is one goal that can be achieved only as a community, as a very functional instant messaging app is meaningless without much people to message. 

If you are someone who is cautious like me when it comes to privacy and psychological well-being, or is at least someone sympathetic to people who are, please do support by installing Signal so that we can all remain meaningfully in touch and stay connected, all while respecting our own privacy. 

References:

[1] The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/whatsapps-updated-privacy-policy-means/article33520201.ece

[2] GSM Arena: https://www.gsmarena.com/whatsapp_new_privacy_policy_facebook-news-47077.php

[3] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/01/facebook-mental-health-study-happiness-delete-account

[4] Images: Onlinecmag, Wikimedia Commons