Once upon a time, WhatsApp held a special place in my heart. When it came along in 2009 we were still relying on SMS, using excessive abbreviations and counting characters because we were paying for every message sent or drawing from a limited pool of monthly free messages. It enabled us to send pictures and create group chats with our friends. It didn't contain any ads, and despite claiming to cost 99 cents per year I was delighted to see a free extension applied to my account every single year.
Ten years later, the app is gone from my phone and I've deleted my account. Where did it all go wrong?
Usability and Convenience
There are much more important issues I want to discuss below, but I'll start on a lighter and more accessible note.
WhatsApp is locked to a single device. If you have more than one phone or you want to use it on a tablet, bad luck. If your phone runs out of battery or you leave it at home there's no way to access your messages.
WhatsApp is locked to a single phone number. If you change your phone number or you're using a temporary one overseas you have to link your WhatsApp account to that number, and if you want someone to be able to contact you via Whatsapp you can't give them a link or a username. It has to be your phone number.
I absolutely hate typing on my phone and try to avoid it whenever I can, so a seamless and reliable web/desktop client is crucial. WhatsApp has one, but it's terrible. It doesn't connect directly to the internet, but instead piggybacks off your phone's connection, draining its battery. If you're sitting in a cafe and you want to use WhatsApp through your laptop, you have to connect your phone to the same WiFi network.
This would only be a minor headache if it worked properly once it was all set up, but even on a rock solid network the connection regularly drops out.
Several years after many of its competitors, WhatsApp finally gave us the ability to delete messages. There are some catches, though. You can only delete a message within seven minutes of sending it, and instead of quietly removing your message from the conversation it leaves a conspicuous notification in place of every deleted message.
Security and Privacy
WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. I've already written extensively about the inherent privacy and security concerns this signifies in my post about the problems with Facebook and Instagram, but let's look more closely at WhatsApp itself.
Facebook paid $22 billion when it bought WhatsApp in 2014. Let's not kid ourselves: they weren't after those juicy 99 cent subscriptions which, by my extremely rough calculations, would have given them a return on their investment after 30 years (and that's excluding the infrastructure and staffing costs involved). In fact the subscription fee was removed after Facebook's acquisition of the platform.
So what was Facebook really paying for? Data consolidation.
For a company whose business model is knowing everything about our lives, having so many of our conversations happen outside their ball pit was unacceptable. Having a convenient list of phone numbers they could match to Facebook accounts with the same phone number solved that problem overnight. That may not sound particularly valuable, but for Facebook it was worth lying about the technical impossibility of making such connections and being fined $122 million when (and this will absolutely shock you) they turned around and did it.
"I sold my users' privacy to a larger benefit. I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day".
- WhatsApp co-founder Brian Action
Facebook participates in the NSA's PRISM program, sharing user data with the 14 Eyes surveillance partnership. Some would argue that since WhatsApp uses E2EE (end-to-end encryption) it's only metadata, but that metadata includes: your name, mobile number, IP address, location, mobile network, your mobile handset type, who you're chatting with, for how long, and at what time.
Besides, end-to-end encryption is useless if the encryption keys are handed over to any government that asks for them, or if one of the ends (your device) is compromised. Since WhatsApp isn't open source software, it's impossible for security researchers to audit the code for accidental vulnerabilities and intentionally implemented backdoors.
Just one week ago, WhatsApp was hacked and attackers installed spyware on people's phones. Seven months before that, a vulnerability allowed hackers to hijack accounts by simply placing a video call, even if the victim didn't accept it. It's no surprise that a service that's constantly playing a game of whack-a-mole with its glaring vulnerabilities received just one star (out of a possible five) in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's data privacy report.
On iOS, WhatsApp backs up an archive of a user's messages to iCloud by default, while Android users have the option to upload the data to Google Drive (suspiciously not counted against a user's storage allocation). These message archives aren't protected by E2EE. Even though the cloud services encrypt the data. the encryption keys are held by Apple and Google, also PRISM program participants.
The Network Effect
The network effect is something I referred to extensively in my post about the problems with Facebook and Instagram. It describes the phenomenon whereby the value of a product is directly proportional to the number of people who use that product. Once a network has reached critical mass, users feel a sense of lock-in, since leaving would exclude them from their connection to everyone in the network.
The network effect is why we put up with rubbish behaviour, rubbish policies, rubbish products. It seems like too much of a hassle to leave. Everyone else is here.
Deleting my Facebook and Instagram accounts was an easy decision since it didn't directly impact others, but my entire social circle uses WhatsApp to communicate. I knew that my departure from the platform would cause friction, and my decision was met with outrage and accusations of selfishness.
Nobody enjoys juggling a whole bunch of different messaging apps when they essentially perform the same function. It seems unfair and unreasonable for someone to expect others to install their app of choice, but if a platform is abusive towards its users as a result of both incompetence and malice, it's equally unfair to force a person to use it. It reinforces and perpetuates the network effect and allows the abuse to continue.
I've always been a strong believer in being the change I want to see in the world, even if it means being different, being excluded, being the first to take the step. I take unpopular stances not for the sake of being contrarian, but because of the kind of society I want to live in and the kind of internet I want in the future.
I know that sounds melodramatic, but if our identity and experience of the world is shaped by the relationships we have, and those relationships are built by our communication with others, I think it's worth being selective about who facilitates that communication and who else is listening in.
I'll end by letting Jaron Lanier describe the kind of society and internet I don't want:
"We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it's financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them"
More Fun Resources
- Apple Insider | WhatsApp backdoor defeats end-to-end encryption, potentially allows Facebook to read messages
- Redmond Pie | WhatsApp sucks at privacy, receives just one star in data privacy tests
- Forbes | WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton gives the inside story on #DeleteFacebook and why he left $850 million behind
- The Verge | WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum is leaving Facebook after clashing over data privacy
- CNET | WhatsApp co-founder: 'I sold my users' privacy' with Facebook acquisition
- Techradar | WhatsApp ads to appear in app from 2020