Mobile Menace Monday: Fake WhatsApp can steal info from your phone

What’s up with WhatsApp’s privacy policy?

WhatsApp has been in the news recently after changes to its privacy policy caused a surge of interest in rival messaging app Signal. Initial reports may have worried a lot of folks, leading to inevitable clarifications and corrections. But what, you may ask, actually happened? Is there a problem? Are you at risk? Or should you keep using your apps as you were previously?

Setting the scene

WhatsApp users found themselves facing down an in-app notification this past week, letting them know of upcoming privacy policy changes. The message read:

By tapping Agree, you accept the new terms, which take effect on February 8, 2021. After this date, you’ll need to accept the new terms to continue using WhatsApp. You can also visit the Help Center if you would prefer to delete your account.

Generally, I’m somewhat suspicious whenever a trusted app starts popping messages, or anything else I wasn’t expecting. After the initial burst of “Is this genuine?”, follows the part where I try to dig out the parts that have changed and see how it compares to what went before.

What worked…

Giving users a bit of time to see the upcoming changes, and work out if they want to be part of it, is good and should be encouraged. Often, privacy policy and EULA changes spring from nowhere, giving little to no time at all to digest them. Regardless of how everything else about this notification panned out, WhatsApp should be applauded for giving everyone plenty of forewarning.

…and what didn’t

The key focus of concern around the update, was how data would be shared going forward. Aspects which people objected to included some data remaining on a device even after deleting an account, lines about “respecting privacy” being removed from the privacy policy, and things like phone numbers being shared with Facebook.

This would naturally be a cause for concern for some people.

The messaging fixer-upper

This situation wasn’t ideal for WhatsApp, who had to clarify the mixed messages spreading online. They stressed that the upcoming update is related to messaging businesses on WhatsApp. Messages are still subject to the same privacy they were previously, and neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can read your messages or hear your calls.

Additionally, more clarifications had to be made that the changes don’t apply to EU/EEA/UK regions despite people in those areas being shown a different privacy policy popup. This is not ideal and tends to lead to confusion. What happens after that, is lots of articles appear explaining what to do if you want to switch to other services. [Updated 19th January: Article amended to clarify which policies were displayed, and to whom].

Writers have described this potential migration away from WhatsApp as “self-inflicted”, and that seems to be an accurate summary. Simply by having to explain the differences between forms of messaging, data collection is thrown into sharp relief. That is to say, you may not have known prior to this how much…or little…your favourite apps collect.

But now you do. The data collection genie is out of the bottle, and yet it may not matter too much.

Decisions, decisions

People will use what they feel most comfortable with. This misstep isn’t going to kill WhatsApp, and if you still want to use it, don’t worry. It won’t be going anywhere. As with all things, informed choices are the best choices. We regularly remind people that it’s time for a security password spring clean whenever a major breach takes place.

On a similar note, this may be a good time to brush up on all those T&Cs tied to your favourite apps. Dig into what they do, which pieces of data they collect and use. At the absolute minimum, ensure your messages are as secure as can be and that only you and the recipients can read them (look for “end-to-end encryption”). Some people are fine with data collection, for others it’s a deal breaker.

Ultimately, the decision is down to you.