Explainer: How new WhatsApp policy threatens security of Nigerians and other alternatives available
WhatsApp has been in existence since 2009, providing a primary means of electronic communication to over 2 billion users worldwide as of February 2020.
The app announced its new policy which it would force its users to accept by February 8, or stop using the app. The new policy will allow WhatsApp to share data with its parent, Facebook.
The new policy however does not apply in EU, since it violates data protection laws.
With its parent company, Facebook, being embroiled in legal tussles over privacy concerns, and the new policy not leaving much choice for users, the market for WhatsApp alternatives is flourishing.
Apps like Telegram and Signal have witnessed a surge of newcomers to their respective platforms.
Apptopia recorded 5.6 million downloads of Telegram globally from Wednesday through Sunday, while Signal was installed 7.5 million times globally through both the Apple App Store and Google Play store between January 6 and January 10, according to reports from Sensor Tower.
Do these messaging platforms have what it takes to replace WhatsApp?
In terms of data security, Signal offers secure encrypted end to end communication between users, while WhatsApp does not encrypt backups (cloud/local) and metadata.
In 2019, WhatsApp group chats were being discovered on Google search as well as user profiles showing up through a simple search. This was said to be fixed in March last year.
Telegram, on the other hand, does not provide encryption for group chats unless you use secret chats, which only support single-user communication.
When it comes to user privacy, Signal seems to offer the most secured form of communication you can get on the internet.
Here’s a list of data each of the messaging apps collects from their users:
WhatsApp collects information such as device ID, user ID, advertising data, purchase history, coarse location, phone number, email address, contacts, product interaction, crash data, performance data, other diagnostic data, payment info, customer support, product interaction and other user content
While Telegram collects contact info, contacts, and user ID; Signal only saves your phone number and does not identify you with it in its encrypted messaging system.
Policy defence offered by WhatsApp
The social media company clarified in a FAQ blog post that the new policy update does not affect the privacy of users’ messages when they’re interacting with friends or family, it only includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp and provides further explanation as to how the app collects and uses data.
“Whatever you share, it stays between you. That’s because your personal messages are protected by end-to-end encryption. We will never weaken this security and we clearly label each chat so you know our commitment,” says the post.
WhatsApp is the most commonly used application for messaging in Nigeria, ranking #1 on mobile app stores. With a population of over 200 million people, WhatsApp will be privy to an entire nation’s worth of information. This poses a threat to national security.
While WhatsApp claims to not read the messages and information shared on its platform; Facebook has shown mishandling/sharing its users’ data. Since the new policy will allow Facebook owned companies to access this information, this stands to reason that Nigeria’s messages can be sold to the highest bidder.
The categories of Nigerians that stand to lose information with this new update include high ranking members of the government and those in the political class, influential Nigerians, business leaders and heads of corporations. The press and civil society activists could also be targeted.
Peoples Gazette is aware of the existence of several WhatsApp groups belonging to individuals in the current administration such as the Senate and other top functionaries. Security and Intelligence agencies also often liaise in this manner.
Businessmen and companies (local and multinationals) such as Jumia and MTN (who trade on the stock exchange) as well as the press rely on Whatsapp’s ease and the illusion of encryption to pass sensitive information between staff and colleagues.
By February 8, remaining on WhatsApp means that information such as insider and trading secrets by the business class, administrative plans and security details by the government, and sensitive information by the press can be mined and sold by Facebook.
What should the Nigerian government do?
In 2019, The NITDA went after Truecaller, a phone number identification app, claiming the app contained provisions that violated Nigeria’s data protection regulations and had taken more information that it needed to render its services.
Instances like this show that Nigerians are still vulnerable to data breaches due to the lack of strong data protection laws.
Nigeria does not have a specific statute regulating Data Privacy and protection, the NITDA created the Nigeria Data Protection Regulations (NDPR) in 2019 which specifically addresses data privacy and protection in Nigeria.
If the government cares so much about data privacy of its citizens, then it should pursue exemption from the new policy by WhatsApp as EU countries have already achieved. Otherwise the authorities can ask that Nigeria be withdrawn from WhatsApp’s services altogether.
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