Years before corona, there was another pandemic that seized the world and continues to do so today. Technology has evolved from being a luxury to a need to now being a necessity for survival. To say the world is at the touch of our fingertips is an understatement.

WhatsApp’s latest privacy policy is a true testament to that. In it, WhatsApp (and its parent company Facebook) publicly state that they are going to use the personal information they obtain from their users. A misconception that cropped up was that this endangers end-to-end encryption of messages. But the last line of the policy clearly says, “The update … does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family”, thereby reassuring us that no third party would read our conversations.

But this policy threatens our data in more ways than one. We all remember Facebook’s infamous court case back in 2019, for privacy breach. They had to pay a fine of $5 billion, one of the largest penalties ever assessed by the U.S. government for any violation. Since services like Google, Facebook etc are free, the money they make is solely from the advertisements they show us. In India alone, 340 million people use WhatsApp, among which 310 million have a Facebook account. That means more 90% of people are at risk of a privacy breach. The more information we give to these services, the easier it is for them to analyze our personalities and show us targeted ads. The algorithm itself is designed in this manner to adapt itself to its user.

The below image shows a situation all of us are familiar with:

As much as we would like to believe that these are coincidences, the truth is simple and plain to see - we are being observed by a virtual spy. With all this personal data about ourselves strewn about - including likes and dislikes, financial matters, our daily schedule to name a few - it is easier for a hacker to use that information to steal our identity, misuse our information, commit crimes such as stalking, and control our lives.

Virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant are another bane to privacy. Designed to make our lives less cumbersome, they make our tasks easier by just uttering the words “Hey Alexa”. But did you know that it keeps track of everything that’s said? Every bit of our conversation is being recorded, and because it can recognize individual voices, it can even know when you’re home - and maybe even what room you’re in (Sounds eerily like the start of a futuristic sci-fi movie where robots take over the world).

There are domains where targeted ads help. They benefit small companies by giving them publicity and increases the brand value of businesses. It relates more to the consumer’s interests and makes it more personalized. But they can also heavily influence our decisions. The best example for this is the 2016 US presidential elections. Voters were subjected to unprecedented, technology-driven efforts to sway their votes, with social media in general and Facebook in specific being the primary weapons of choice. US politicians spent 25 times more in the 2018 midterm elections than in 2014. Such mass campaigning by targeting specific posters and information to the people is a serious restrain to democracy and free thought.

With WhatsApp’s new privacy policy stirring up quite the revolt, rival companies have emerged out of the woodworks, claiming to have a more secure platform. Signal is an IM app which boasts a greater end-to-end encryption capacity for texts AND for calls. The main feature that sets it apart from WhatsApp is that it is open-source, meaning anyone can view the code and see that our data isn’t being sold off or misused.

An additional feature it provides is called Screen Security, which blocks other apps on our phone from taking screenshots of our chats. This is another way to ensure that no one else can access our messages. We can also send timed messages which delete themselves after a certain interval. One more awesome feature is “Note to Self”, a place to jot down important messages instead of creating a group for ourselves.

But what truly gave Signal a surge of new users (despite being around since 2014) was Elon Musk’s tweet in its favour.

A two-word tweet by the CEO of Tesla boosted Signal’s app downloads by 12000%. More than vouching for it, the tweet was an indication of how billion-dollar companies are compromising our safety and privacy for their economic benefits.

The irony of this debate is that what we think we are controlling is actually controlling us. We are constantly being monitored, and not by humans. Especially during this pandemic, our conversations take place through a third person - over social media. Quitting technology is not a feasible option today, but what we can do is to be wary of the information we share and permissions we grant on such sites.

Shreya Manoj