DEV Community

Sualeh Fatehi
Sualeh Fatehi

Posted on

Security, Privacy, Popularity

The recent announcement from WhatsApp regarding changes to its privacy policy has thrown a number of people into a spin, and Elon Musk’s tweet on Signal did not help. (Humorously enough, it caused the stock of an unrelated company rise sky-high.) So, I thought I would discourse a little on this:

When it comes to social media platforms, people often confuse privacy and security. Really, there are three ways to evaluate social media platforms – privacy, security and popularity.

Popularity is how many people use the platform, and is a useful measure when you decide which social media platform to use – the more popular the platform is, the more likely you are to find your friends on it, or the greater the pressure on you to use it, if you want to communicate with your friends. On the other hand, the more popular a platform, the better it can be used to manipulate for malicious purposes, including the demagogic manipulation of the masses.

Security is about how easy or hard it is for a third-party (other than the communicating parties and the provider of the social media platform) to intercept and read the communication. Common security measures include encrypting communications between the parties (that is, between party 1 and the server, and the server and party 2), preventing screen captures of the app, disappearing messages, preventing copy and paste of messages, and so on.

On the other hand, privacy deals with protecting the identity of the people who are communicating. Identity is knowing the name, address, phone number, current location, and other information about the communicators. It can extend to information such as previous purchases, credit card numbers, usage of other apps, and so on. Typically, the communicating parties and the social platform provider would know each other’s identity, but in the case of some cryptocurrencies, even the two parties may not know each other’s identity. Since in most cases the provider of the social medium knows the identity of the users, the users’ goal is to limit how they use this information, and how they share it with third parties.

The confusion people have is about which of these three things – security, privacy, and popularity - are important in what contexts. Let us take some examples. For example, if you are a regular person who wants to chat with your friends, you would want a private and popular platform, but you would not care too much about security, probably. A private platform would protect your personal information, and a popular platform would help you find your friends, and if these things were true, you would not care so much if someone read the communication itself. On the other hand, if you were a terrorist, you would look for a platform that was private and secure, but not necessarily popular, since you could always ask your fellow terrorist to use whatever app you were using. If you were exchanging cryptocurrency, you might want a platform that was secure and popular, but you may perhaps care a lot less about privacy. If you were Donald Trump, all you would care about was a popular platform - damn security and privacy. You get the picture...

Now coming to the argument of the choice between Signal and WhatsApp. Signal and WhatsApp are roughly equivalent when it comes to security. WhatsApp is arguably more popular. WhatsApp is not very private, while Signal claims it is private. Please remember that WhatsApp claimed to be private too, until Facebook acquired it in 2014. How long before Elon Musk (or someone else) buys Signal? Fellow space traveler Mark Shuttleworth is already an investor in Signal. Is it worth moving to a less popular platform, so that you can “feel” more private (you never know for sure)? If you feel it is worth moving away from WhatsApp, are you willing to stop talking to your friends who don’t use Signal, stop getting customer support from companies like Dell or Airtel and many others who have bots on WhatsApp? And what about all the data about you that Zuck already has collected over the last 4 years (at least)?

Discussion (0)