Privacy and digital rights are important issues in the digital age. Digital technologies have brought many benefits to society, but they have also created new challenges related to privacy and digital rights.
In this blog post, I will explain the importance of privacy and digital rights, and use Meta’s WhatsApp to analyze how and where the company may have compromised users’ privacy. And how users and platforms should balance their relationships with each other.
Privacy is the right of individuals to control their personal information and protect it from unauthorized access or disclosure. Yet whether people have given their consent or not—or even whether they are aware—modern information technology has considerably aided the collecting, aggregation, systematisation, and matching of massive volumes of data gathered from many people (ALRC, 2010). This has raised concerns about how the data is used and who has access to it.
The majority of respondents, according to Digital Rights in Australia, did not feel in control of their online privacy. A minority (38%) believes they have control over their online privacy, even though the majority (67%) actively protects their privacy and has altered the settings on the social media platforms they use the most (Goggin et al., 2017).
As for the protection of online privacy, it can be seen that in Australia, there are still a large number of people want to do something about it. They will want to try to use some kind of system interception to avoid the mass release of their information. There are more and more such pop-ups, such as the iPhone, which asks you if you want to share your location before using a new app for the first time whenever you download it. It’s all up to the individual to choose, choose ‘Yes’ if you want easier access to the app and ‘No’ if you don’t want the app to track your location.
However, for today’s young people, numerous of them decide to use social media, own cellphones, and engage in other online activities despite being fully aware that their data is being gathered, their actions are being watched, and their online experiences are being generated and personalised by algorithms. The usage of social technologies by regular people as “proof” that people don’t care about privacy is a common tactic used by journalists and technological pioneers (Marwick & Boyd, 2018).
Few people can avoid the Internet in the modern world because it is such a vital source of knowledge. And the fact that it exists has two sides. We can use it to communicate with others as well as to learn more about what is occurring in the globe on a daily basis. The convenience it provides to people in today’s society is so great that we barely ever want to be without it. However, numerous platforms and retailers also profit from this to collect various types of personal data for use in marketing campaigns or the development of tailored services. Whatever the motivation, there is a lot of transparency in how our identities are being revealed online. Some people might not give this much thought because they believe that having their personal information leaked online won’t have a significant effect on their day-to-day lives. However, Netflix was sued over their customised tracking service by an Ohio-based mother who is a closeted homosexual. She had rated a few films with LGBT themes on Netflix, which was the cause. Her capacity to make a living and provide for her family, as well as her ability to live a tranquil life in the community with her kids, will be negatively impacted if her behaviour is discovered and her sexual orientation is made public (Blake & Ted, 2014). Although it shouldn’t be possible to imagine, the release of personal information does run the risk of influencing our situation in the actual world. Therefore, the need to preserve individual privacy has always been paramount.
Digital rights are those that people have access to in the digital environment, such as the right to information access, the right to online expression, and the right to privacy protection. These rights are necessary to defend individual autonomy, advance innovation and creativity, and advance freedom of expression. For instance, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds equal and inalienable rights, which are extended by the right to online privacy and freedom of expression. According to the UN, cutting off someone’s Internet access is against both those rights and international law. Internet connection “shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be a right,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has promised to make high-speed broadband accessible to all homes and companies in his country by 2020 (Hutt, 2015).
Although maintaining privacy in the digital era can be challenging, it seems that people are becoming more conscious of their digital rights and prepared to resist Internet surveillance. When Snowden revealed the scope of American government espionage in 2013, it stunned the entire world. Microsoft responded by announcing plans to construct two data centres in Germany to keep information on European clients from reaching American authorities. In the UK, activists want judges to sign the warrants allowing security agencies to access citizens’ data rather than the home secretary (Hutt, 2015).
It is crucial that people and policymakers collaborate to address privacy and digital rights issues as technology develops further. Strong data protection regulations can be implemented, new technologies can be created that prioritise privacy and security, and people’s awareness of their digital rights and how to safeguard them can be increased.
Human rights are undoubtedly a valuable normative foundation for these discussions as a widely accepted and institutionalised normative framework. However, the current discussions surrounding digital rights do not provide a coordinated strategy to actual policy issues. Arguments can be made that debates over the definition and application of pertinent rights, their methods of realization, and how to balance them with other considerations like security or economic effectiveness have only become more pronounced as a result of the digital transformation. Digital media’s cross-border and cross-industry convergence has put current normative and regulatory frameworks in communication policy to the test and created new problems, conflicts, and political battlegrounds (Karppinen, 2017).
Everyone has an equal right to privacy from the standpoint of human rights. However, privacy can be incredibly difficult for those who are marginalised in life, just as parents watch over their children constantly for their children’s safety. So that people feel as though their digital rights are not being abused, there needs to be a clear limit as to how much privacy is compromised. Apps will occasionally leverage the right emotional triggers to allay users’ concerns about disclosing their personal information. For instance, Uber lets customers share their location both with drivers and with those who are familiar with them. Users will feel secure using this mode. Instead of considering the exposure of their own location, they can share their location with acquaintances at the same time, so they will consider their personal safety to a certain extent.
WhatsApp is a free messaging app that also supports voice and video calls and employs end-to-end encryption. The platform was purchased by Facebook (now Meta) in 2014 for $19 billion. The most popular messaging programme today is WhatsApp, which has more than 2.24 billion users worldwide (Ruby, 2023).
In March 2019, Mark Zuckerberg introduced a new “privacy-centric vision” for Facebook and used the company’s international messaging service WhatsApp as an example. His focus is on WhatsApp’s distinguishing characteristics: end-to-end encryption, which turns all messages into an unreadable format that can only be decrypted after they reach their intended destinations (Elkind et al., 2021). According to Mr. Zuckerberg’s remarks, WhatsApp messages are so secure that only the recipient can access the information. But doing this has proven to be incredibly challenging.
Facebook Inc. has violated WhatsApp users’ privacy in a number of ways, including by deploying an army of content reviewers. When taken collectively, the company’s activities have made WhatsApp much less private than its users probably realize or anticipate. In Austin, Texas, Dublin, and Singapore, WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract employees occupying floors of office buildings. These hourly workers use specialised Facebook software to sort through millions of private messages, photographs, and videos while seated at computers in pods arranged by task (Elkind et al., 2021).
Facebook might not have had that in mind. WhatsApp aims to assist governments in transferring data that could aid in the battle against crime and internet abuse. However, being a free app, the company’s main problem with turnover is making money off of services that never ask customers for money. Like other social media and communication platforms, WhatsApp is stuck in the between of demands for privacy from users and those from law enforcement. Finding the ideal balance between users and regulators is challenging, though.
An EU Data Protection Directive from 1995 was replaced with the General Data Protection Regulation, a rule governing data protection and privacy that went into effect in 2018. It is possible to evaluate WhatsApp’s privacy risk level index in accordance with GDPR requirements using PrivacyCheck, a proprietary data mining tool. Using the PrivacyCheck tool to analyse WhatsApp’s policies, it was discovered that the messaging service may be rated as having a medium risk level and 45% user control (Schabio, 2023).
As can be seen from the figures, for instance, WhatsApp requests a user’s email address and uses it to provide the requested service, hence this element is deemed to provide a medium risk; Due to the gathering, storing, and sharing of personally identifiable information with third parties, such as a user’s credit card number and home address, the second element is marked as high risk; “Location tracking” is categorised as yellow since it is used for intended services but is not shared with outside parties; WhatsApp shares user data with law enforcement, hence that element was marked as high risk.
According to a privacy check research, WhatsApp mines, collects, and shares users’ private information as part of the umbrella firm Meta, and shares it with third parties (Schabio, 2023). While the Messenger app complies with GDPR regulations, it does not provide privacy, instead informing users about the data gathering process and entering into an agreement. So, from a legal standpoint, WhatsApp has done nothing illegal. Morally, though, it is a huge source of concern.
Digital surveillance is made feasible by the distractions and pleasures of the new digital age. We’ve made it easy and cheap for digital behemoths like WhatsApp and Meta to spy on, spy on, and target us by deliberately exposing ourselves. We are victims of digital and participatory monitoring because we are blinded by the pleasure we gain from digital practises. However, in their pursuit of profit maximisation and market dominance, merchants treat user data as a commodity that can be acquired, mined, and sold. However, it infringes users’ private rights and institutionalises power and knowledge disparities.
When utilising apps or platforms on a regular basis, we as users need to exercise greater caution. Even big businesses like Meta, not to mention how user information is used and sold by tiny businesses, are examples of this. More openness exists than ever before about our personal information. In the future, it is hoped that they will be able to evaluate consumers not just from a legal standpoint but also from a moral standpoint in order to reduce the risk of user information leakage.
Australian Law Reform Commission. (2010). For your information: Australian privacy law and practice (ALRC Report 108). Information Privacy: The Commercial Context. Retrieved from https://www.alrc.gov.au/publication/for-your-information-australian-privacy-law-and-practice-alrc-report-108/1-introduction-to-the-inquiry-5/information-privacy-the-commercial-context/
Goggin, G., Vromen, A., Weatherall, K., Martin, F., Webb, A., Sunman, L., & Bailo, F. (2017). Digital rights in Australia. University of Sydney. https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/17587/USYDDigitalRightsAustraliareport.pdf?sequence=7&isAllowed=y
Marwick, A.E., & Boyd, D. (2018). Understanding Privacy at the Margins: Introduction. Retrieved from https://go-gale-com.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=usyd&id=GALE%7CA561120196&v=2.1&it=r
Blake, H., & Ted, S. (2014). Recommended for you: The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture. https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au/doi/full/10.1177/1461444814538646
Hutt, R. (2015). What are your digital rights? Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/what-are-your-digital-rights-explainer/
Karppinen, K. (2017). Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights. Routledge. Chapter <Human rights and the digital> https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315619835
Ruby, D. (2023). Whatsapp Statistics 2023 — How Many People Use Whatsapp. Retrieved from https://www.demandsage.com/whatsapp-statistics/
Elkind, P., Gillum, J., & Silverman,C. (2021). How Facebook Undermines Privacy Protections for Its 2 Billion WhatsApp Users. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/how-facebook-undermines-privacy-protections-for-its-2-billion-whatsapp-users?ref=hackernoon.com