What-Mess-agram? App merger stirs privacy fears

Friend request: Facebook trumps all of these apps with 2.2 billion monthly users.

Facebook has announced a controversial plan to merge Instagram, WhatsApp and its Messenger app. Mark Zuckerberg says the move will benefit users, but critics say it threatens our privacy.

Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger. Over 2.6 billion people around the world use at least one of these apps. While they are all owned by Facebook, they have always been kept apart. Not for much longer…

As revealed by The New York Times, Facebook has made plans to merge all three apps into one underlying system. This means that, while they will remain separate apps, information will be able to be shared between them.

So, in practice, someone on WhatsApp or Messenger could message someone else on Instagram without ever having an Instagram account.

Sounds practical? In a statement, Facebook said it wants to “build the best messaging experience,” and “make it easier to reach friends and family across networks.”

But not everyone is convinced. “This move could potentially be good or bad for security/privacy,” claimed cryptography expert Matthew Green. “But given recent history and financial motivations of Facebook, I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on ‘good’.”

At the core of the issue is a security feature called end-to-end encryption. This prevents anyone reading messages apart from the sender and recipient. WhatsApp has this feature as standard. Instagram and Messenger do not.

Critics like Green worry that combining the apps will make WhatsApp less secure and give Facebook access to a bigger pool of personal data. However, Facebook insists that its messaging services will be “simple, reliable and private”.

2018 was a tumultuous year for the social network which faced numerous scandals. It was accused of not doing enough to stop the spread of fake news and clamp down on Russian trolls. Furthermore, the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed how millions of users had their personal data harvested for political purposes.

“If you’re still on Facebook after everything has happened […] you need to ask yourself why,” writes Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawiat. “Is the value you get from the platform really worth giving up all your data for?”

Whether fears around Facebook’s latest move are well founded, only time will tell.

Dislike

In many ways, this is an issue of trust. Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp — we are constantly sharing personal information on these apps, and we trust those who run them to keep this data safe. Is this foolish? Should we rethink how much we are willing to share online? Should we abandon social media altogether?

Some think we should also consider our relationship with technology. Fundamentally, Facebook wants to increase the amount of time users spend on its apps, and integrate them more into our daily lives. Is this what we want? Are smartphones having a negative impact on society? If so, what should be done about it?

You Decide

  1. Is social media a force for good?
  2. How much do you care about the information Facebook has about you?

Activities

  1. Take a few minutes to think about all the personal information that you voluntarily post online, making notes of what you think of. Does this strike you as a lot of information, or not very much? Is it worth giving up this information for the benefits that social media brings?
  2. Read the Atlantic piece in Become An Expert — it argues that smartphones have had a negative impact on young people. Write a short response to this question: “Smartphones have done more harm than good. Do you agree?”

Some People Say...

“Those who rule data will rule the entire world.”

Masayoshi Son

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly ordered all of the apps to be given end-to-end encryption. The merger is expected to be complete by the end of 2019 or early 2020. According to Facebook, this is the start of a “long process” which will involve “discussion and debate.”
What do we not know?
In what precise ways the merger will change how the apps can be used. We do not know how much influence the activity of Russian trolls really had on the outcome of the 2016 election. Nor is it clear how effective Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting techniques were.

Word Watch

The New York Times
Read the original report by following the link in Become An Expert.
Cryptography
A method of protecting information and communications by using codes so that only those for whom the information is intended can understand it.
Encryption
The process of converting information into code.
Do not
Facebook Messenger supports end-to-end encryption in “secure conversations” mode. This is turned off by default.
Russian trolls
The Russia investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, has revealed how Russian trolls working for a group called the Internet Research Agency tried to use social networks to increase support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Cambridge Analytica
A political consultancy firm which attempted to use data harvested from social media to influence elections.

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