“Data was never safe”: Kashmir moves on from WhatsApp amid privacy scare

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Amid the privacy scare that WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging application, is sharing user data with its parent company Facebook, hundreds of Kashmiri internet users are making a move to other messaging platforms.

The people in Kashmir are making a digital migration in hordes along with friends and group admins to the most popular alternatives: Telegram and Signal. A 21-year-old student at the University of Kashmir, Aabid Mushtaq, moved to Telegram to “protect my right to personal liberty, and privacy”.  

“It is my personal details, chats,” said Mushtaq, anxious since the new update. “I don’t want anyone else reading it.” To him, and “almost everyone” in his social circle, “Telegram provides more protection.”

In the new privacy policy, WhatsApp will share the crucial information about the user — phone number, transaction data of WhatsApp Payments, service-related information, your interaction with others, mobile device information, and IP address — with Facebook. Zuckerberg has owned WhatsApp and Instagram through Facebook since 2014 and 2012, respectively. 

WhatsApp has set the deadline to accept the new policy by 8 February to continue using the application. India has been the biggest market for WhatsApp with more than 400 million users.

“This policy will have bad consequences as companies share our private details with other companies, violating our privacy,” said Mushtaq. “It ultimately is an insecure application.”

Earlier, The Kashmir Walla had reported that more young Kashmiris were moving to encrypted chats after a crackdown by the police on Twitter users in August 2019 for allegedly writing against the government’s policies and actions.

However, WhatsApp had clarified that this update won’t change how it deals with the personal texts — end-to-end encrypted, and as per the company, no third party can read them — people have taken it up as a phishing issue and are migrating across the globe. 

WhatsApp has been doing it for years

What has shocked the users more are the reports that WhatsApp has only made it public now, while it has been sharing this data with Facebook and other sister companies since 2016.

Since 2016, WhatsApp allowed its existing users to choose whether they want to share their data with Facebook and gave 30 days time to opt-out. Since then, it has shared the data with Facebook of reportedly more than a billion new users and the users that opted out. Wired reported that WhatsApp already “shares a lot of intel with Facebook” and how the new policy doesn’t change much.

Though there will be no ads on WhatsApp, the user data will be used by Facebook — and sold to private advertisers — to better its advertising targeting across other products of the company. In 2019, Zuckerberg envisioned a cross-platform functioning across Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp that he called “interoperability”.

Instagram’s Direct Messages and Facebook Messenger have already been integrated. This move enhances that move further. So what hundreds of thousands of users are doing across the globe should have been done half-a-decade ago.

Are top alternatives safe?

Telegram, founded by Pavel Durov, a Russian who fled the country in 2014, has long taken digs at WhatsApp and branded itself as a “safer version” of its competitor. It claimed, on its official website, that “making profits will never be an end-goal for Telegram”. 

However, Telegram isn’t as rebelliously secure as it comes across. Among the number of issues, in context of privacy, the primary is that the chats aren’t end-to-end encrypted by default, unlike WhatsApp. Telegram also collects metadata – including the IP address and device type – and keep it on its server for up to a year, the details that can be used to track down individual users. 

In contrast to it, in 2016, Signal withstood a subpoena request for its data in the United States of America. In the case, the only information it could provide was the date the accounts in question were created and when they had last used the application — simply because it does not store messages or contacts on its servers, and hence cannot be forced to give copies of that information. 

Though the major threat to users’ privacy in end-to-end encryption remains if a third-party gets physical access to the user’s gadgets. Pavan Duggal, Chairman of International Commission on Cyber Security Law, and a cyber law expert had told The Kashmir Walla in an interview in September 2020 that to “make your data more secure, make sure sensitive information and important data are encrypted not only on chat applications but on smartphone and storage devices too”.

Another internet user in Srinagar, 28-year-old Huzaif, who wished to be identified by his first name, said he only moved on from WhatsApp because “everyone else around me is going”. To him, the new policy isn’t a privacy issue but “since the whole community moved, what would I do on WhatsApp?”

“As if we had so much privacy earlier,” he said, implying that the digital migration won’t make much of a difference for users in Kashmir. “Data was never safe.”

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