By Ivan Booth

A famous quote erroneously attributed to writer Mark Twain about the reports of his own death being “greatly exaggerated” comes to mind during the current flutter about WhatsApp privacy practices. No sooner had South Africa’s first dry New Year’s Eve come and gone that we started noticing the background noise about legions of Twitter users apparently migrating to Telegram and Signal over new WhatsApp privacy policies.

Specifically, users of the world’s most popular social messaging platform must - from 9 February 2021 - explicitly agree to WhatsApp sharing users’ personal data such as phone numbers and locations with its parent company, Facebook, and its subsidiaries.

It’s important to note that WhatsApp has clarified that messages between users are never shared with anyone and they are, in fact, immediately deleted from the company’s servers after delivery. Add the fact that the firm has repeatedly stated that WhatsApp and its associated companies are only interested in diagnostic, performance, and service-related information like what settings you are using; and the time, frequency, and duration of your activities; and that really should be a good enough explanation for anyone.

Furthermore, WhatsApp has also said that it will continue to protect our privacy with its well-known end-to-end encryption of personal messages. The update is simply about how businesses who use WhatsApp for customer service may store logs of its chats on Facebook servers. This really is a classic example of a storm in a tea cup.

While it is good that citizens remain watchful when it comes to issues that could impact our right to privacy, we must also remember that South Africa is fortunate in that our own Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) offers us a great deal of protection when it comes to how private companies access, store, and share our personal information and this, of course, includes our cellular numbers, location and more.

Finally, we should remember that the people who run the voice and data services that we love so much got into that line of work to deliver outstanding services that make our lives better, safer, and more convenient. Think of the lives that have been saved because ordinary people like you and I were able to quickly type out or record a desperate plea for help. Let’s keep things in perspective and continue to enjoy the services we love.