Friday, February 21, 2014

WhatsApp now?

Sweet!!!  (Source: Gawker)

So Facebook (FB) is buying WhatsApp (WA), in the biggest tech deal since 2001.  If you want to know more about this deal, just go open up WSJ or Ars Technica.  I just want to add 2c, my personal view on this.

From FB's perspective, it's easy to see that this could be a good buy, at any price.  Of course they could just as easily screw it up by messing with the user experience, and people will flee and may never come back. 

But as a consumer, I can't help but have a sick feeling in my stomach.  They are paying wads and wads of money, for what? A communication tool that's a dime a dozen? Certainly not that.  Does FB just want to shove its ads every time we send an IM?  WA has repeatedly claimed to be anti-advertising, its founders insist that dedicating resources to advertising diverts attention from more important tasks.  FB is also claiming it won't be adding ads to WA.  But my point isn't about ads, really.

We know the appeal of WA, it’s simplicity.  You install the app, you give it your phone number, your name, and it automatically registers you to its network, goes through your entire contacts list to see whether or not your friends are registered.   Is it simplicity, or is it just invasive?  Even if you delete your WA account later on, your phone number would still be in their database if any of your contacts use WA. 

My primary messaging platform is BBM, followed by Talk/Hangouts. I also pay for Skype to make international calls.  I had to register for WA once because my boss broke her Blackberry and insisted that we all install WA (this was well before cross-platform BBM was released).  Now, most of my friends have WA installed, but don't use it as primary IM platform, preferring BBM, Line, or WeChat instead. I guess in that way WA is just like FB, it's just something everybody most likely have, but may not use regularly (if at all).

What I didn't like when I used WA, was that sometimes all of a sudden someone I'd met years ago, who only had my phone number,  contacted me for free.  You can argue that if somebody knows your phone number, they can just as well send you a text, but you’ll be surprised how a $0.03 texting charge (as opposed to free WA message) does act as barrier, keeping you from people you don’t want to talk to.

But my biggest fear, my biggest concern, is that WA is a treasure trove of phone numbers (and corresponding real names!) world wide.  I do believe that FB is paying for the 450m user database of phone numbers, which is valuable because (my guess) many (if not most) of FB users refuse to give out personal mobile numbers.  It (may?) also keeps a matrix of who has who in their contacts.  Sure, maybe they have privacy and anti-advertising policies now, but something may happen that they will change their stance. Something like being acquired by the biggest data mining and advertising company in the world.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't want to live under a rock.  I do own a FB account (which I check sometimes).  In fact I voluntarily give up my mobile number to Google and Microsoft for two-factor authentication.  But in these cases I'm giving them up for a known, tangible benefit, namely secure access to my email inbox.  In the FB/WA deal, we surrendered critical personal information just for convenience, and they (may/will/have already?) unilaterally change the terms to their own advantage.   It's not the first time FB does this and it won't be the last.

Social engineering scams will only get worse, not better.


It's been over a year since I erased the WA app from my phone.  People tell me they can still see me as registered in WA, and ask if I receive their WA messages (which of course I don't).  So I look up how to completely delete my account, and it turns out I'll need to reinstall it on my phone and delete my account from the app.

So in order to wipe my personal data off of their servers, I'll need to login first on my phone, giving them an *updated* list of my contacts database.

Go figure.

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