Whatsapp Is Too Expensive for Me

Plenty of my friends and colleagues use WhatsApp and enjoy it. But I think few people are really considering the information pricetag they’re paying for a chat client. It comes up frequently enough that I thought I’d catalog the information you give Meta/Facebook/Zuckerberg by installing WhatsApp.

I imagine collecting metadata over a period of a few years to glean these insights. This is all extracted from “metadata”, by the way. You don’t need access to the contents of someone’s messages to know all about them.

  • Contacts
    • everyone you have ever known, when you last contacted them and when you last updated their info.
    • what high school, universities you attended
    • what you studied
    • where you have worked and when
    • who are your family (contacts named “mom” or with same last name)
    • who are your friends
    • approximately where you live
    • your hobbies
    • your political leanings and affiliations
    • what doctors you have visited regularly enough to store
    • what medical conditions you’ve probably had
  • Storage
    • every place you’ve taken a picture
    • who you were with
    • what you were doing
    • what you wear (brands etc)
    • your interests/hobbies
    • when you travel, and where to
    • do you have kids, how many and how old
  • Location
    • home address
    • work address (and therefore likely job)
    • friends and where they live
    • who you’re sleeping with
    • your path to work, what transit you use, where you change stations etc
    • social events
    • hobbies
    • doctors / medical history
    • how often you use the toilet and for how long
    • kids’ schools and paths there
    • where you shop and what brands
  • Generally from having an app
    • your sleep/wake schedule
    • how often you use your phone
    • your phone make/model/year
    • any phone peripherals you own (eg earbuds)
    • what other social applications you share from

Of course I haven’t included any data that’s publicly available to purchase and correlate with you to build a more complete profile, which Meta certainly does. Credit card information, brands you frequent, your subscriptions, which video services you use (netflix, hulu, etc), your SSN, income bracket, age, sex, and more. Nor have I included information we get by combining metadata, like psychological profile, alcohol/drug habits, risk of medical conditions like heart attack, etc.

Even talking about that knowledge in the abstract like this, the significance doesn’t really land. Another way to look at it is the specific knowledge about your life that they gather from this information. Here are some examples from the EFF:

  • They know you rang a phone sex line at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
  • They know you got an email from an HIV testing service, then called your doctor, then visited an HIV support group website in the same hour. But they don’t know what was in the email or what you talked about on the phone.
  • They know you received an email from a digital rights activist group with the subject line “Let’s Tell Congress: Stop SESTA/FOSTA” and then called your elected representative immediately after. But the content of those communications remains safe from government intrusion.
  • They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local abortion clinic’s number later that day.

This is not quite the same as knowing when you were masturbating and to what, that you’re suicidally depressed, have HIV, that you’re a digital rights activist, and are having an abortion… but it’s just as bad.

When an app asks me for permissions, I try to mentally translate it into a request for specific information like this. So when I go to install WhatsApp, it says “in order to use Whatsapp, you have to tell me everyone you have ever known, when you last talked to them, where you studied, your doctors’ names, your medical history, family and friends name, where you live and work, your route between them, when you’re sleeping vs awake, your hobbies, etc…”

There are plenty of apps where that tradeoff is worth it for me. But not a chat app. They’re a dime a dozen! Especially not when there are alternatives like Signal available which ask for no information and offer the same features.

I think most people don’t consider app installs this way. That’s not an accident, it’s a feature of how the system is built. People who are tricked - practically everyone - are not fools. They are victims. So when I see that you have WhatsApp installed, I don’t judge you. I judge Meta.

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