Data has truly been described as the “new oil” and any web-based venture is always looking for more. Its use may have simplified everyday activities, but only at the expense of making us all an open book on the Internet.
In India, ethical data use has never been a polarizing factor among internet users, possibly because for most of us web-based information has been a boon compared to what we experienced when we searched our own data from government documents. A Bollywood movie (Kaagaz) that arrived on OTT tells the real story of a man who sought legal action to prove he was still alive!
The early days of Facebook and WhatsApp
Of course, the internet-conscious city dweller is much more critical. When Facebook came onto the scene around 2005-2006, some of the early adopters were white collar workers and students. In many households, children under the required age even created accounts claiming the date of birth ten years earlier than the actual one.
As Facebook’s greed for data grew and ads appeared in the most unexpected of places, the youngsters, who were now colleges, gave up, as did many of the professionals. However, housewives and seniors came in, who found it a good means of stalking relatives and associating with each other.
The same was the case with WhatsApp. Its early adoption followed the same patterns and soon it became a means of creating groups for families, extended families, alumni networks, cycling clubs, offices, corporate groups and much more. No wonder, then, that Facebook gobbled it up for $ 19 billion in 2014, it’s the largest to date.
Owning the universe
Six years after the deal closed, everyone came out richer, not as much as early investors Sequoia Capital, whose return was then estimated at 5,000%. All the while, we knew Facebook would look more to WhatsApp, which was a rival to its own Facebook Messenger.
The new policy was a double whammy as both Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp were the worst data accumulators in this area. In fact, we’ve also given you some options in case you prefer to let WhatsApp go completely, rather than hoping it would actually bring you better ads.
The Indian Riddle
So why do I think it can be difficult for India to let go of WhatsApp? For starters, I am part of several groups discussing WhatsApp’s new policy and the participants are vociferous in their support and rejection. The only thing worth noting is that such discussions often take place on … er … Whatsapp!
A second factor that struck me was the reluctance to move to some more secure options, such as Signal or Telegram as the default messenger. Challenges some of them mentioned include (a) My entire network is on Whatsapp (b) I don’t have the patience to learn another (c) Who cares about Facebook?
Then the thought hit that while Facebook was an option, Whatsapp was not one. For conversations, be it text, voice or video, we had to install and use the app. Security is doomed!
Suffice it to say, India boasts a generation of smartphone users who probably bought their device for Whatsapp. Yes, you read that right! Because for so many people, all close and loved ones stay on Whatsapp and Facebook. Friends, family, colleagues (current and former), business partners, relatives et al.
While a person may personally find it cumbersome to open and remove divine images every morning, there is no reason to stop those who send them with more religious fervor than they feel when visiting a place of worship. Not to mention the Good Mornings and Good Night posts that invade your privacy.
Now imagine someone was going to use WhatsApp for Signal or Telegram. Trust its impact on these groups, where individual members may not interact with you individually, but the power of collective camaraderie cannot be easily shunned. What if some extra data is collected behind the scenes? Who would want to go through the trouble of uninstalling one app by downloading, setting up and using another?
But that is not everything. There’s that ubiquitous delivery guy who wants you to send him your home’s Google map location via Whatsapp so he can save time and come home for a late supper. In addition, these agents prefer to call you on Whatsapp as it is not monitored by the company.
So while the few who look up to your tech savvy might be listening to pleas to turn into something more private, a good portion of those connected to you wouldn’t care. Because most of us are part of groups where people hate their loyalty to a new messaging app.
Perhaps a “Make in India” brand might be enough. Is anybody listening?
It is also idiot proof
Remember that Whatsapp is not all about voice calls and messages. The app does most of what emails do and is much less picky. In fact, the word has turned into a synonym for messaging for all users of Whatsapp. “Can you send me your Whatsapp bill?” or “I’ll send you the menu via Whatsapp” are common choruses.
And there is that other crucial function that Whatsapp performs during festivals and festive occasions. Usually there is more than one photo enthusiast running around and clicking on everything and everyone at such gatherings. All these snaps go via Whatsapp, albeit compressed, to the organizers who then create an album.
Mind you, such cases are not limited to just smaller towns and villages or linked in any way to economic status. This pandemic has spread to such an extent that very often annoyed guests to town tweet about events where they miss the show because of these smartphone photographers amateurs.
Here’s a typical scenario in a middle-class Indian family:
- Both parents have their own smartphone, usually an Android device
- In addition to making calls, the device is also their storage for all contact information
- This can also be the pin codes of their ATM, insurance premiums, etc.
- The parents do have an email ID due to compulsions, but they rarely use it
- It falls on us tech-savvy kids to use them to connect to their banks, gas agencies
- Of course, the need for communication, which is too digital, is overwhelming
- And this is where WhatsApp comes into play as it allows them to share and speak with ease
Data privacy is doomed! There is no way that these new smartphone users will be using Whatsapp anytime soon. As for data, they like to share it with each other because that’s exactly the way things work at home. From the email ID to locker access and everything in between is shared all over the house.
Who Needs FaceTime?
The bane of the telecom revolution in India is the cheap costs that customers pay. We had two near-bankruptcies with mobile operators, but data costs are still among the lowest in the world. Operators like Reliance Jio, of course, consider it a boon, as it helped them reach dizzying heights of 400 million users in 2-3 years.
If data is cheap, why would anyone want to make calls over the network? Remember, we are a country that sends “missed calls” to others so they can call back and spend the money. Plus, now that call dropping becomes a regular feature, those calls with the boss become much easier as the audio quality on WhatsApp is better.
Since some of these calls were lengthy and involved everything from a love of sharing past experiences to providing real-time coaching solutions, both callers couldn’t care less about confidentiality. Moreover, since Whatsapp promises end-to-end encryption of all messages (and calls), there is hardly any problem.
Now that video calls are a breeze via Whatsapp, those family gatherings are now all the more energetic. During the three-month lockdown, several family events were held and broadcast to the extended family via Whatsapp. Of course, the wealthy can use Zoom calls instead.
Agreed that Telegram and Signal do most of what we’ve come to accept as a given of Whatsapp, the fact is, not many people would buy the idea of changing themselves and then doing it for others.
It’s now about the ecosystem
WhatsApp’s ecosystem, curse and the biggest reason we’re even discussing this is another reason most will find it difficult to switch. WhatsApp Pay – although not a prominent payment method in the country at this point, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp Business are deeply integrated and replacing any of them is difficult until you decide to step away from the ecosystem.
Companies like MakeMyTrip, BookMyShow and many more have started offering support via WhatsApp and I’ve always had a great experience getting a quick clarification by chatting with a representative on WhatsApp instead of calling and waiting forever to contact talk to a manager.
Of course, none of these can be a compelling reason to share more data than is necessary with a behemoth appearing to be peeking through a window that is open. But the challenge is to create a mindset shift around data security and its implications when most Whatsapp users just want a real-time companion.
One that allows them to talk to friends, family and business with the click of a button and even face-to-face with one more click. Data collection is something every app does, some discreetly and some with formal approval. And in a country like India, where it is still difficult to get data, the fear of losing data is still a long way off.