WhatsApp With WhatsApp?

All the hub-bub concerning Facebook's recent acquisition of WhatsApp has been centered on Facebook and sticker prices. Lost in the discussion is the impact of the deal on WhatsApp and its messaging app, not to mention the real and pressing privacy concerns for users that in many ways make WhatsApp a mini-me Facebook.

In terms of the deals' impact on WhatsApp, not many statistics are currently available. The ones that are however, paint a very intriguing picture. For example, German citizens responded overnight to the deal by switching to messaging app Threema, doubling that company's user base and placing it atop the country's paid App Store rankings. Clearly, the German populace was not happy. But why Threema? The Swiss startup emerged as an attractive alternative not only because it wasn't connected to Facebook but more important, because it offered end-to-end encryption, a strong plus for those who wish to protect their online identity and personal information.

Furthermore, in what could only be filed under the epitome of bad timing, WhatsApp encountered its biggest outage to date over the weekend. Outraged users responded by flooding to other messaging app services such as Telegram, which exploded from 100,000 users to five million users overnight, making it the most downloaded iPhone app in 48 countries. If nothing else, such escapades show the fickle-minded nature of customer loyalty, an important factor to remember with the rising advocacy of online privacy.

That leads to the bigger challenge here, mainly WhatsApp and its shocking lack of privacy ethos and user protection. A recent Forbes article detailed the messaging app's oversights in the encryption of its users' communications. Adding fuel to the fire was Runa Sandvik pointing out that WhatsApp collects the IP address of anyone who visits its website, along with the site they visited previously and afterwards, and also tracks who the user talks to and when. And lest we forget, In 2012, WhatsApp ended up in a hearing with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada over concerns that user accounts were susceptible to third parties prior to completion of the user authentication process, potentially enabling a third party to create and control accounts associated with phone numbers which they did not own.

So what does that portend for privacy and the WhatsApp-Facebook megadeal? WhatsApp and Facebook claim they will operate independently of one another. What neither company says is what will happen to the information that WhatsApp gathers. Here's where you need to read the fine print and feel your skin crawl. In its Privacy Policy, WhatsApp states the following:

In the event that WhatsApp is acquired by or merged with a third-party entity, we reserve the right to transfer or assign the information we have collected from our users as part of such merger, acquisition, sale or other change of control.

Translated into simple English, all your personal information can be transferred to Facebook and used by Facebook in any way it sees fit. That means Personally Identifiable Information such as your phone numbers, address books, mobile device data and payment information are fair game. And so much for the privacy of your friends' mobile numbers. Those little nuggets of information are already collected by WhatsApp as stated by this sentence also within the Privacy Policy:

WhatsApp will periodically access your address book or contact list on your mobile phone to locate the mobile phone numbers of other WhatsApp users ('in-network' numbers), or otherwise categorize other mobile phone numbers as 'out-network' numbers.

In many ways, Facebook and WhatsApp are perfect privacy partners. Each hand feeds one another with your privacy serving as the main course. The best course of action to take is to look for companies that have built into their app methodologies that truly protect user interest and practice user protection in shape and form as opposed to in words only. In addition to outlining what Sgrouples offers as an authentic privacy-centric social network, I have also called out in previous columns the private search engine Duck Duck Go. These are high integrity examples of the real, viable, and exciting options available to those seeking to enjoy privacy and safety, while sharing and searching online.