By Luisa van der Linde
Last week, South Africans have been bombarded by requests from friends, family and acquaintances to delete WhatsApp and to rather download other mobile applications after this messaging service announced that its terms and conditions would change.
In true South African fashion jokes started circulating almost immediately. Author Rudie van Rensburg, best known for his Herklaas books, shared the following on his Facebook page:
English translation of the original Afrikaans text
I really don’t care that Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies (the Illuminati, Flat Earth Society, the Capitol’s security services, the CIA, the Pentagon and the Bill Gates Foundation) are going to bother to activate Google Translate every morning (US time) to analyse my WhatsApps of the past 24 hours during their morning conference. They would then share in my frustration in my struggles to find a reliable garden refuse remover and a plumber. They would also laugh with me at the jokes my friends sent me. Healthy cyber entertainment for everyone. I’ll just stick with WhatsApp. I really don’t feel like changing to another platform right now. One never knows what nasty characters are watching you out there. At least by now I know all my customers on WhatsApp.
But jokes aside – few smartphone users really understand what the new terms and conditions are about, and they don’t know whether it is safe to click “Yes” when a screen pops up on their WhatsApp, forcing them to accept the new conditions by a certain date.
Solidarity approached Rianette Leibowitz (a cyber wellness expert and founder of SaveTNet cyber security) and Jaco van der Walt (a cyber security engineer with Telic Consulting) to help phone users separate the wheat from the chaff.
The main question on everyone’s lips is: Should they press “YES” when this message appears on their WhatsApp?
“There really is no choice. If you want to use WhatsApp you have to accept the terms and conditions and use the app according to its regulations,” Rianette says.
She says it is important to take a step back and to understand – and bear in mind – that all applications are entitled to make their own rules.
“We are using most of these apps for free and we must realise that when we use something for free there usually will be something we have to give in return. Most of the time it is our data, our information.”
Rianette says applications such as WhatsApp use such information for the very purpose of improving the service they provide to the consumer. Consumers must bear in mind that those services are still like a huge engine that has to generate income.
Jaco says that in his opinion the WhatsApp fuss is a storm in a teacup.
He agrees with Rianette that WhatsApp offers its services to consumers free of charge and no business can offer services for free without having some source of income.
“When you are using a free service such as Facebook or WhatsApp, you are the product that is being sold”.
Rianette and Jaco both point out that WhatsApp has been part of the Facebook Company since 2014.
“The Facebook Company is a business that is making money by offering marketing services to other businesses. All the Facebook companies (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and others) are doing is strengthening and expanding this business model.
Facebook and Instagram already share data about their users with each other.
Put simply, Facebook makes sure its data about users is of significant value to other business that pay to advertise on the platform.
In essence, this means that Facebook and WhatsApp (and any other free platform such as Google and its products) collect data about you to give to marketers and to offer you a more personalised online experience.
“The result is that you will see advertisements on these platforms that are really relevant to you. This has benefits for the marketer, but also for you,” Jaco believes.
She says that few people are, for example, aware that the age limit for WhatsApp and Signal is 12 years and for an app such as Telegram, it is 17 years.
Jaco says that, among others, WhatsApp can use the following data about yourself:
- Your contacts list (cell phone numbers, names, etc., depending on the option you adjust yourself)
- Your usage patterns (how often you send messages, how fast you respond to messages from your most popular/least popular contacts, etc.)
- Your profile photo and status updates
According to Rianette and Jaco there are basically two choices:
Each user must decide for him- or herself whether he or she is comfortable with companies saving their personal information, preferences or consumer patterns to make their service possible.
- If you want to use the WhatsApp application you have to accept the terms and conditions.
- If you don’t want to accept it, you should consider other options.
Has there not been a connection between WhatsApp and Facebook for a long time? What are the ‘extra connections’ consumers must now say ‘YES’ to?
Rianette says from what she can gather the new terms and conditions are more about people wanting to use the WhatsApp platform for business transactions.
“If you go to WhatsApp in the App Store and you scroll down to WhatsApp’s information and privacy options a list will appear with information that WhatsApp can share with other companies and information that you share with them of your own free will. Most of this information has to do with the app’s functionality.
For example, if you use WhatsApp to do your shopping – which by the way is not yet available in South Africa – some of the information about the transaction would of course become available. Consumers therefore actually say “yes” to information that is already available on Facebook being shared with other businesses via WhatsApp. This is not necessarily a negative. It is just a more integrated experience. Of course, we also need to realise that Facebook wants to use all this information to provide you with a better service in the first place, and to make money in the second place because it is an engine that needs to keep running”.
People are now frantically downloading apps like Viber, Telegram and Messenger on their phones. Is there any guarantee that these apps are safer than WhatsApp and Facebook that are connected?
Jaco believes the various platforms people are now downloading all have their own pros and cons. “Again, do bear in mind – if you are using a product that comes free of charge, the business must have a way of generating income”.
PRIVACY AND SAFETY
Most people are particularly concerned about their privacy.
Consumers can rest assured in the knowledge that WhatsApp’s messages have End-to-End (E2E) Encryption.
This means that the moment you send a message to a contact it is shuffled and concealed in a unique and complex way. Only the person to whom it is sent can decipher it and can read the correct message. This process happens automatically, and users only see the decrypted message.
This means that while the message is moving through WhatsApp’s servers and networks it is unreadable.
Therefore, WhatsApp cannot read your messages addressed to other people and there is currently no evidence that they do so.
Jaco says the best way to audit this technology is for security researchers to look at the source code and the implementation of the system.
“The cyber security community agrees that WhatsApp’s encryption is as it ought to be and that a standard protocol is used with no known shortcomings,” Jaco says.
The same cannot be said of all the other platforms. There are concerns about Telegram’s encryption system in particular. Telegram does not use a standard encryption method and researchers do not have access to the Telegram source code to ensure that Telegram’s implementation functions as is promised. The cyber security community has been speculating for a long time that Telegram can still read your personal messages.
The Signal app is an exception in this regard. Signal has been established by researchers and privacy activists and is based on a non-profit model. This app’s source code is available and can be viewed by anyone. In this way, it can be confirmed that Signal is established on the principle of providing a secure and private service to users.
Rianette also believes that WhatsApp’s encoded messaging system is secure.
“One of the ways in which hackers gain access to consumers’ information is when users or consumers click on malicious links.
Consumers expose themselves when they receive a WhatsApp, SMS, Messenger message or an e-mail, especially from an unknown sender, which contains a link to an unknown e-mail address.
“Lately, I have been receiving many messages on FB’s Messenger service asking, ‘Is this you appearing in this video?’ When clicking on this type of video and by providing information you expose yourself and your information. Consumers should take responsibility for themselves and should not just click on anything and provide information.
Can hackers now gain easier access to people’s smartphones, and especially their banking details?
Remember that your smartphone has become the key to your safe. Keep it safe and if your phone is stolen or lost, contact your bank immediately to protect your account”.
Are consumers who say “YES” more exposed if one of the following devices is also connected to their phones:
- A home computer or a laptop with WhatsApp Web,
- A smart TV box (such as Apple TV or an Android TV box), or
- A smart watch such as Garmin or an Apple sports watch?
Rianette says you are not necessarily more exposed if you have connected another smart device to your phone because you are still using the same app (in this case WhatsApp) on all your devices.
“The specific application’s rules still apply. As a consumer you can, however, expose yourself when the camera, location and speaker settings of the device and the applications you connect them to are not set strictly enough.
Go to the WhatsApp store:
If you scroll down you will see that the data that can possibly be associated with your identity often has to do with the app’s functionality and involves the following:
- Information for developers
- Advertisements and marketing and then also analytical data such as purchases, user information, location and contact details.
All along, this comes down to your responsibility as a consumer to know the rules and regulations of the specific application and to set your own settings yourself.
For example, in the case of Google Maps you can choose whether you want to give someone all the time access to where you are, or whether people should never see where you are.
Quite a few moms are worried that with the Covid-19 lockdown their primary school children are now using WhatsApp to talk to each other or to do so in groups. Will paedophiles or criminals with the new conditions in place now be able to intercept messages or talk to children more easily? Parents also want to know if there are any suggestions on how parents can keep their children safe.
Rianette says in short the answer to the question is no, paedophiles or criminals cannot intercept messages more easily. End-to-end encryption (E2E) still applies.
“Only your contacts or people who have contact with you can send messages to you. When it comes to deciding when parents allow their children to use WhatsApp, parents should realise that the age at which children may use WhatsApp is 12 years and, therefore, parents will have to accept the responsibility themselves if their children are younger than that.
The platform itself is not unsafe for children. But, the people we contact, the type of information we share and what we talk about is where the risk lies.
It is at this point where we can make quite a few suggestions to parents to keep their children safe. Rianette gives more advice in her book Maak jou kind SKERMSLIM … (Make your child screen wise) and when it comes to WhatsApp, she singles out the following things parents should bring home to their children:
- You only chat to people you know in person.
- You do not share things you would not publish in a notice or in the newspaper.
- Cyberbullies must not be tolerated at all. If you are a member of a WhatsApp group you must remember that you will be held responsible for anything that happens in that group. First and foremost, the admin is legally liable, but secondly, everyone in the group is liable too. If you see something that is said or posted that is negative and you do not object to it, you are actually approving it.
It is important that parents are involved and that they set sound boundaries in terms of the amount of time their children spend on WhatsApp.
Jaco agrees that E2E messages are private and that education and awareness about the dangers offer the best way to intercept problems sooner rather than later.
“The main risk is that your child will be tempted to chat to an unknown person. Teach your child not to chat to unknown contacts and to never give them personal information. Also, never make an appointment to meet a stranger in person. Cultivate a culture of honest conversation with your child about who they chat to and what they are chatting about”.
People now read in the media that Facebook and WhatsApp have been linked to synchronise advertisements. If you and your partner are having a steamy conversation in which the word “sex” features, or your teenaged children are exchanging jokes that are under the belt and contain obscene keywords, will that mean that you will suddenly have to remove ads of an adult nature from your Facebook wall?
Rianette says two different platforms are involved here. Facebook is a public platform. Everything that happens there is public and your friends and their friends (depending on your settings) can see everything you share there.
WhatsApp, on the other hand, is private and all messages sent on this platform are encrypted, and as such no one else has access to your private messages. Only the person who sends the message and the person who receives it have access to the specific message.
WhatsApp.com/legal states “no third-party advertising.” According to this statement there are no ads on WhatsApp at this stage. It should therefore not happen that keywords on this app would lead to any advertisements.
The Facebook app does pick up keywords and the type of ads and information you receive there are customised. However, this also applies to Google and many of the other applications such as Maps that we also use. Even Siri and Alexa use built-in Artificial Intelligence to collect information that is specific to you.
If you are not a Facebook user at all, will your WhatsApp service be suspended?
Many consumers only use Facebook, or only Instagram, or only WhatsApp.
“What I understand by WhatsApp’s new terms and conditions is that if you use a WhatsApp service, your information could be shared with related companies in the Facebook group, and indeed according to the way you are using WhatsApp. If you do transactions that are not yet available in South Africa and your user information is saved it may be shared with the Facebook group’s companies at a later stage,” says Rianette.
Jaco says to the best of his knowledge WhatsApp has not adopted a policy in this regard but it is unlikely that you will be obliged to become a Facebook user.
Will it make a difference to my privacy and that of my contacts if I adjust the options that prevent my contacts from being shared across multiple platforms?
“For sure! … And if you have the option to do so, I suggest you use it because you do not necessarily have permission from all your contacts to share all their contact information,” Rianette says.
She says that when you look at True Caller for example, you have to share your entire address book with the app so that True Caller can let you know who is calling you. If my number is saved on your phone and I have not necessarily given you permission to share it, my contact information may already have been shared with True Caller. So, if one can make adjustments within the specific application to not expose people’s details, by all means do so. However, in many cases you may not be able to do so because True Caller often does not offer that option. This is part of their terms and conditions.
“I have to say it is simply so that in the case of the well-known apps we use, it is usually easier to make that integration happen, and that the application then works better. On the other hand, there are many applications that are not as well-known.
“In the case of those questionnaires on Facebook in which one has to indicate what type of animal you would like to be or what you would have looked like if you had been a supermodel we, without realising it, disclose so much information through the type of answers we give. Given the terms and conditions and by providing such answers one usually gives access to certain information such as your friends on Facebook. Therefore, we simply have to accept more responsibility when it comes to the permission we give in each type of application or with the things we do online,” Rianette explains.
If consumers say “Yes” to the new WhatsApp terms and conditions will it make a difference if, for example they use their Facebook profile to sign into other applications such as Strava (sports app) or medical fund apps (such as Discovery’s one)?
Rianette says she always suggests that one does not use a social media platform to sign into other apps. “That is something I would change because one never knows what may happen to those platforms”.
There is no guarantee that platforms such as Facebook or Twitter will keep going – the demise of Mxit proves this. You also have no control over how social platforms are going to change and what they are going to do next.
Rianette therefore recommends that you rather use your own e-mail address and password for each individual application you sign into.
“It is not a risk in itself to sign into your medical fund’s app or into a sports app. The risk arises when someone accesses your Facebook or Instagram profile and uses your social media account to sign into the rest”.
Do you have any advice or tips for consumers who are now scared of using restaurant and banking apps on their phones?
General guidelines that apply when it comes to shopping online or doing online transactions are the following:
- Always use your own Wi-Fi or a known network for your transactions. Do not sit in a café or restaurant and use their open Wi-Fi where someone else might be using the same network, hacking your account in the process.
- Make sure you log in and out. Sometimes, we are so busy that our attention is distracted and we don’t always open and close the gate.
- Don’t save your banking details. Rather enter it from scratch every time. It is a hassle as it saves time when it has been saved. However, by entering your details each time you transact you have the assurance that if the online company gets hacked your details will not be part of the stolen information.
- You can also open a separate bank account for your online shopping so that you can transfer money from your main account to this account and then use that account for a specific transaction rather than using your main account, thus exposing all your savings and all your banking details. Should someone then happen to get hold of your credit card details and steal money you will not lose everything that is in your account.
- Heed the notifications you receive. If there is a something you could not have been involved in you must report it immediately. Two-way verification and PIN codes are of the utmost importance. This is a good way of making sure people do not get hold of your information or money easily.
- Choose a strong password for your smartphone.
- If your phone is stolen or lost, use your manufacturer’s website to lock your phone.
YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS A CONSUMER
In conclusion, Rianette has the following to say about the whole WhatsApp debacle:
“We are now focussing so much on the app and what this application does with our information and how we can be contacted. However – remember to pay more attention to what you share and how you handle your own contacts’ messages, exposing your information”.
For example, screen shots can cause one serious embarrassment and can cause major harm.
“It is not the platforms that are bad. It is not the internet that is bad. On the contrary, it provides and creates wonderful opportunities for us. As consumers we must remember that the way in which we use the platforms remains our responsibility and that we should be responsible digital citizens.
The other point I want to make is this: Data is mostly used to make progress and to improve industries. For example, a health application wants to provide a better service while a banking application wants to make banking more accessible. In order to enjoy this, we must be prepared as consumers to be part of the solution by revealing our online habits within a safe framework, of course without endangering yourself personally, and in such a way that we are part of the information that helps to achieve progress.
We have to realise, though, that to enjoy what technology can offer us, we have to play a role too and we have to be willing to share some information.
On the other hand, we also have to make sure that what we post online never puts us in a bad light and that we will protect ourselves in such a way that we can be safe in person and online. Here, I also include the type of photos we share. For example, there is so much metadata behind every photo you share. It can identify where, on what day and at what time and with what device the photo was taken. Through photos you can expose yourself as well as the groups you follow, if you are not careful. Everyone needs to realise once again – the platforms offer us something, but everything you do online as a consumer can impact on your experience.
The choice remains yours. Make sure you are informed and make your own decision based on the terms and conditions and whether you agree with them, or not. And of course, when children are involved, ask yourself whether it is age appropriate or not.
As a consumer you must use social media and the internet to make a positive difference and remember: Travel safely on the internet!
Rianette Leibowitz, founder of SaveTNet and cyber safety expert. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rianette.com and www.savetnet.com
Jaco van der Walt, security engineer at Telic Consulting. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com
Additional resources and background reading
Basie van Solms, Wat nou Whatsapp?, Die Burger, 12 January 2021
WhatsApp is going to update their Terms of Service in 2021