Thursday, February 27, 2014

WhatsApp, Messaging Wars, and Privacy's Demise...

There was a lot of commotion last week when Facebook announced it was acquiring WhatsApp for a stunning $19 billion.  Was that valuation insanely high?  Was this a signal that the market is experiencing a new tech bubble and that we can expect a round of major tech mergers and acquisitions this year?  Perhaps, as the New York Times suggested, the messaging app wars are just getting started?

Everyone has their own opinion about the WhatsApp valuation, but lost in all the hype is this...  privacy advocates have suffered yet another setback.

The very fact that Facebook is the acquirer - the same Facebook which has repeatedly come under fire for purposely obfuscating the ways in which individuals can control the privacy levels governing their own information - is the clearest signal of the direction the messaging industry is headed.  Public outrage over N.S.A. surveillance be damned, Facebook outwardly wants to start performing the same kind of data mining on, not only your statuses, photos, and videos, etc., but your smartphone messages as well.  The content of your messages will now surely be factored into its search engine and advertising algorithms.

It's not as if WhatsApp wasn't data mining its messaging service already.  The problem is that they are being so heavily rewarded ($19 billion for a company with 55 employees = $345 million of value per employee) for doing exactly what privacy advocates despise, and for doing it well.  Does anyone doubt that now every other messaging competitor is going to look at those numbers and try to emulate this model, if they weren't doing so already?

This need not be the case, and it's certainly not inevitable.  Let's propose an alternative model.  There's a messaging app called TextSecure which makes the bold assumption that people actually might value their privacy and prefer not to have all of their communications archived forever on some corporation's server and mined for data that will then be used for commercial advertising.  TextSecure is encrypted, is open source, and "the server never has access to any of your communication and never stores any of your data".

As consumers, we have a very real capacity to influence the direction of a lot of these policies.  Especially since all of these apps are the same price (free), making a conscious decision over which one to use and support is a decision that may have greater consequences in the long run than simply being a matter of which interface has a sleeker design.

In other words, there's something we can do about it.



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