Why Social Media should not be blamed for Privacy Paranoia

In an age where a social media platform can pull off a billion-dollar valuation, it is tempting to believe that social media is fail-proof. But as online networks grow to sizes never seen before, every miscalculation in public relations risks irreparable backlash. Messaging platform WhatsApp has been in hot water for its data-sharing policy with its parent company, Facebook. The opprobrium against WhatsApp, while understandable, is misguided.

Buckling under pressure, WhatsApps decision to delay its data sharing policy is a hollow victory for critics. Whether to stay or to jump to another platform, we must first understand all the conflicting dynamics at play and the likely tradeoffs for both providers and users.

Most online communication tools are either standalone software or an added function to a broader social media platform. For WhatsApp, being part of a for-profit social media group means that they are here to make money off their users — whether directly (by subscription) or indirectly (re-selling data to advertisers) is beside the point. One revenue driver is high user trackability, which allows businesses to monitor behaviors and trends, and adjust their marketing efforts to convert leads into customers.

Facebook may be the leading social media platform, but the pool of competitors is growing in size and number. Inundated with choices, users’ attention span is rapidly narrowing. In a move that should surprise no one, Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 because of the latter’s ubiquitous user network. When being questioned whether Facebook and WhatsApp could combine their users’ data after their merger, Facebook claimed this was technically impossible because WhatsApp used phone numbers and Facebook user identities — an assertion that was dismissed by the European Commission. We might never know for sure whether or to what extent our data were shared between the two platforms. But, given the very nature of social media, that was the risk we willingly took when we put these apps in our smartphones.

In fact, absent trackability, our enjoyment of social media can be a total crapshoot. Users can get video entertainment on a media site for free, but without algorithm-determined search results, it will show up with a mishmash of content. By tracking what users like, algorithms can help users sort through irrelevant results. The downside is that a search engine also tracks views, enables it to sleuth out identities, and uses the information to sell advertisements. We should expect this divide to deepen as the two universes of application and user become increasingly intertwined.

Paradoxically, we, the users, are also liable for the choices we make that further erode privacy. Oftentimes, impatience tilts us towards disclosure. Users overshare personal information online for trivial, immediate rewards. Free online quizzes are prime examples. Administered by snoopy third parties, they are a data-security minefield, but many social media users cannot resist them. The same applies to people sending their personal information (i.e., Hong Kong ID card number) via a messaging tool because it’s convenient. As users, we share information for the convenience offered, but we do not want to bear the consequences once information has been shared.

Our inability to be objective is ascribable to the misunderstanding of privacy rights. How many of us care to plough through a lengthy privacy notice when the reward of a simple ‘click’ is instantaneous? Why use a messaging tool when an in-personal meeting can be more efficient, and, ironically, secured?

Neither should we expect regulators to step in. Regulations targeted to limit intra-company data sharing can have a disproportionate impact on any software that has a chat function. Chief among them is the presumed exploitation of consumers’ online activities, which is deeply ingrained in the dominant digital business model. To impose overarching regulations over tech companies will likely invite coordinated industry complaints as regulation allegedly kills innovation.

Perhaps the deep mistrust against social media companies explains the mass exodus of users switching to standalone messaging software that is not, to date, here to make money and is touted as completely private. The so-called “largest digital migration” is fraught with problems. As digital skeptics we have all grown to become, we should first ask: how long will these platforms remain non-profit and impartial? Facebook was also ad-free for its first four years before it achieved unassailable scale and turned to advertisement for revenue source.

Another far-greater danger lurks behind the privacy cloak. Messaging platforms that do not know what goes on between users can compromise the greater good for self-serving purposes. For example, by relying on the anonymity function of a communication tool, during the anti-extradition bill movement, Hong Kong protestors confounded authorities by swapping immobile sit-ins with guerilla-warfare type of protests that made the protests difficult to contain. Digital dexterity comes at a price. There is a legitimate concern that these private channels can provide secrecy for more extreme activities such as terrorist attacks and human trafficking. Can society entrust all individuals to play the self-governing roles themselves? Privacy is a necessary tradeoff for security.

Nowadays, almost every user has at least one messaging application on her smartphone. As such, using a messaging platform as a tool to track locational data can have its benefits, such as maintaining public health. In China, it is not possible to go to restaurants or take public transport without a green health-code embedded in a super-app such as WeChat. China’s victory against COVID-19 in such a short period of time is evidence of its tracking value. In our battle against COVID-19, Hong Kong continues to rely on citizens’ self-reporting of their whereabouts. The result is that most of the rising COVID cases come from untraceable sources.

It is unfair to scapegoat WhatsApp in our privacy paranoia. This misguided criticism exposes the public’s lack of understanding of modern messaging tools, but it also highlights the perils of relying on a single digital tool and the possible ethical frailty of the corporate host to which such tools belong.

Perhaps this represents a key moment for regulators to connect with the public and better understand the rising concern over privacy. Governments should launch campaigns to encourage citizens to question the veracity of information they receive via messaging platforms and social media. Equally, the WhatsApp public furor is a cautionary tale for big tech to be as transparent as possible about data use.

Clear evidence of crimes orchestrated on encrypted platforms versus benefits for moderate tracking in the name of public safety, should prompt us to reconsider our baseline. We all want privacy, to greater and lesser degrees. Some messaging platforms give total privacy, but at what costs? Devoid of well-intentioned supervision, a private channel can conceal large-scale criminal activities from law enforcement, under the pretense of privacy. But tracking without limits is also prone to corporate greed.

Much like fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech, the exercise of privacy right is often contextual. All rational actors concerned need to use technology as a bedrock to balance privacy, convenience, and public order. There is little to be gained from blaming social media. It’s a tool for good as it is for evil, but make no mistake, we are the ones in control.

Head of legal with an MBA@MIT. Exploring topics on education, data privacy, tech, entrepreneurship and PE/VC landscape.

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