The latest controversy splashed across our media about the safety of Whatsapp groups may have you confused. Let us lay out the facts and offer you some insights to make the picture a bit clearer…
India is a major market for WhatsApp, accounting for more than 40cr users. Whatsapp is that message-sharing social media app that we turn to multiple times a day. We use it to communicate with colleagues, friends, family and vendors. Individuals and companies market themselves via whatsapp using business accounts, while the rest of us conduct private chats or interact with people holding common interests via whatsapp group chats.
That’s where the problem lies – with Whatsapp groups!
The recent uproar about Whatsapp data privacy was triggered by Rajshekhar Rajaharia, an internet security researcher. He shocked the nation when he revealed that our whatsapp groups may not be as secure as we think! This was suggested via a tweet.
When people delved into the matter, it was found that the links that whatsapp groups use to invite individuals may not be secure. They in fact may be leaking data to Google.
What does this mean?
So why is that bad? What happens if whatsapp group invites are shared on Google?
It enables random individuals to access your private Whatsapp group by conducting a simple search on Google. These people can join your groups and copy numbers, names and profile images of every member. Added to which, they are able to read all the messages being shared. If your WhatsApp groups are largely professional in nature, this matter is most relevant to you!
Usually, in larger whatsapp groups in which members don’t know one another personally, there are high chances of people joining, hanging around and then leaving, without anyone noticing. Admins are usually busy. Plus they are happy with a growing whatsapp group so even they don’t question any unknown numbers or people joining.
The implications of this are many. But they all stem from the fact that our private and sensitive information can be stolen and used for various means. It is equivalent to a stranger entering your house, sitting at the dinner table, eavesdropping on personal family matters and leaving with a diary filled with personal data.
User profiles at risk
Another find showed that some whatsapp user profiles were indexed on Google. Indexing basically means that a Google search could easily locate a particular user, access their profile and all the details associated with it. This is highly unsafe as critical information can be obtained through such untraceable sources.
The issue related to indexed user profiles was discovered in July 2020. Since then, there have been no comments or statements issued by the company.
What made it worse was the fact that these rules did not apply to the UK and Europe. This highlighted the fact that whatsapp had specific agendas with the Indian audience as compared to the European populus. This raised a red flag with legal and privacy experts and gave rise to fresh demands for a more stringent data protection law in India.
As a response to this and numerous user complaints, the Indian Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology held internal discussions to understand the implications of the move. They made an attempt to locate further loopholes and build a case against the implementation of the new policy.
Elon Musk posted a simple two word tweet saying “Use Signal” which has led to many users choosing a safer alternative via the Signal app. Indian business tycoons like Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra Group, PhonePe CEO Sameer Nigam, and founder of PayTM Vijay Shekhar Sharma have also advocated the not-for-profit instant messaging app Signal.
In reaction to this, Whatsapp immediately rolled out a statement saying that any user who disagreed with the new policy won’t be able to use the messaging app after February 8, 2021.
Action points taken by Whatsapp
In November 2019, links to whatsapp groups were found on Google. This was reported to Facebook and it attracted a lot of media attention. However the same links have not been indexed this time. What this means is that there seems to be a new bug or an error from the company’s side.
The official statement stated “Since March 2020, WhatsApp has included the “noindex” tag on all deep link pages which, according to Google, will exclude them from indexing. We have given our feedback to Google to not index these chats. As a reminder, whenever someone joins a group, everyone in that group receives a notice and the admin can revoke or change the group invite link at any time. Like all content that is shared in searchable, public channels, invite links that are posted publicly on the internet can be found by other WhatsApp users. Links that users wish to share privately with people they know and trust should not be posted on a publicly accessible website”.
This statement basically says the following:
- We will no longer be indexing Whatsapp users or their profiles
- We have informed Google to not index chats either
- If you don’t want to share your whatsapp invite publicly, don’t post it on a website!
Additionally, “We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. The changes are related to optional business features on WhatsApp, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data”.