Social media data security: WhatsApp with that?

Nick Booth gets behind Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp to ask some tricky questions about the future of data security

I hate the global village. The internet has turned us all into global village idiots, or GVIs as the heads of content marketing probably call their audience.

Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains, as Rousseau said. Once these words were regarded as revolutionary. They probably still are, but now they’re ‘revolutionary’ in the modern marketing sense, where it’s regarded as a good thing that everywhere man is glued to a glowing screen that sucks out all his vitality and sells every detail to creepy agencies.

One day I’m going to break out of this electronic jail, get out there and see the world. You just watch. Oh, hang on, there’s an email. Sorry, I hate people who do this, but I might have to read this one immediately, it looks important.

They’re saying that Facebook’s bought WhatsApp! LOL! This is the first of many emails that we will all receive, from now until the end of Mobile World Congress, giving some marketing manager’s “very unique” take on the takeover of one social media player by another. None will have anything remotely interesting or original to say.

Except a man called St John Deakins who is CEO of Citizenme, which helps people to take back ownership of their identity. Now that does sound revolutionary: expect him to disappear in the middle of the night.

As consumers we have less choice now about which social platforms we share our data with than ever before, says Deakins.

Facebook and WhatsApp sound a perfect match – but for all the wrong reasons. “Currently, WhatsApp can change terms and conditions at any time, without notifying users, which many people who use this service aren't aware of,” says Deakins.

Meanwhile, Facebook already has a very broad copyright licence on its subscribers’ own ‘creative output’ – if that’s the right term for all the photos and nonsense that people write on their pages. Facebook thinks this is its own ‘content’ and shares your data with many other services, he points out.

Now that Facebook has bought WhatsApp, even more private information will be in Facebook's database. “From a personal data standpoint, this is extremely worrying,” says Deakins.

At Mobile World Congress, there will be many men in suits droning on about monetising content and integrating silos of data across BSS/OSS systems in real time. The end game is to know exactly where you are, at any time, and every single detail of information about you, so you might be vulnerable to an impulse buy. So a problem drinker, walking along the sea front at Barcelona, might be confronted with a message saying ‘Hey, there’s two for one on Estrella at that bar over there. You’d be crazy to miss it.’

These data hoards are worrying, explains Deakins. Our social data is being concentrated into sinister silos – Facebook also bought Instagram for $1bn, it bid $3bn for Snapchat, Yahoo bought Tumblr, Google purchased YouTube and Android – all these acquisitions are really about buying customers and their data, he argues.

Right now any social or messaging network that hits critical mass will be snapped up by one of the big California-based personal data monsters. “It's not just the network that is being sold, it's our data that really makes the purchase as they combine it with all the other personal data they already hold about us. Their mission is to own a 360 degree picture of you,” says Deakins, adding rather ominously, “it seems to be well on its way to a mission complete."

Dad dancing

My first reaction, on hearing that Facebook has bought WhatsApp, was that young people no longer use Facebook!  Though there’s no fool like an old fool, the increasingly aged demographic of Facebook is not attractive, as these are the people with no disposable income. Despite their readiness to surrender their privacy to Facebook, they’re not as susceptible to advertising as younger online users.

I thought that Facebook buying WhatsApp was like Dad gatecrashing the children’s party and demanding that they change the music. Not so, explains Deakins.

“There’s no doubt that Dad has just gatecrashed the party, but at the moment it seems he’s just doing some bad dancing,” says Deakins, “Currently, Facebook has said it won’t be making any changes, but that could just be a holding statement. We’ll have to see what moves they make over the coming months.”

But market watcher and research analyst Siân Rowlands at Juniper Research doesn’t agree with our analysis.   

“I don’t believe Facebook acquiring WhatsApp is similar to Dad taking over the party and changing the music. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram two years prior to this goes some way to explain this – Facebook didn’t make any changes to Instagram – at least from the user’s perspective – until October 2013, a full 18 months after the acquisition,” she explains.

Facebook primarily brought WhatsApp for its subscriber base. At 450 million active users that makes the price paid per user $42. Is Facebook a philanthropist? Maybe it has been a bit generous.

That’s a lot of money given that it’s estimated only 22% of those users actually pay for the service, according to Rowlands. “Even then the cost is only $0.99 per annum,” she notes.

There’s no doubt that WhatsApp is the biggest IM service – even though in certain countries, apps such as WeChat or KakaoTalk may prevail, globally WhatsApp is the biggest. However, Facebook wants to make it even bigger, taking it to over a billion users. At WhatsApp’s current growth rate – adding a million new users a day – this will be done by August 2015.

Only then, Zuckerberg has indicated to Rowlands, will Facebook begin thinking of monetising the service. “Zuck gave clear indications during a conference call announcing the deal that this would not be through advertising,” says Rowlands. Sounds like she’s Facebook friends with the great man! Lookout Siân, he knows where you live!

As Facebook is seeing more and more of its revenues come from mobile advertising, it continues to develop its mobile advertising product. That’s why I’m not at MWC this year: I suspect that Facebook wants to turn my smartphone into a mobile cosh that it can clobber my sensibilities with everywhere I go [Also you weren’t invited – Ed].

Rowlands is less worried about all this. “I would say this acquisition is more akin to Dad crashing the party of the coolest kid in town, and keeping a close eye on the music the kids are listening to, the brands they’re wearing and how they’ve done their hair, whilst making sure no other dads can get in,” says Rowlands.

Social network lifecycles

The real issue highlighted by this acquisition is the lifecycle of a social network, says Giles Palmer, CEO of Brandwatch.

Are they like super-compounding assets or flashes in the pan? Palmer says we don't have enough data to have a real grasp on the answer because they are all so young. “I used to think Microsoft Windows had a monopoly,” he says, “but that was blown apart by the internet and interoperability.”

“I don't like the idea of a future dominated by a handful of extremely powerful companies. I like competition,” says Palmer. Aren’t brands all about power and marketing?

IT comms expert Alice McKeown at Kwittken seems to think it’s all perfectly natural. “It’s like a phagocyte cell engulfing and neutralising an invading bacteria,” says McKeown. Phagoycte cells are protective cells we all have in our bodies, she explains.

Facebook has appraised its current wardrobe of familiar but predictable clothing choices - it's time to throw out those mom jeans and buy some new skinnies, says Blur Group’s CEO Philip Letts.

No, for goodness sake, Facebook shouldn’t be going to Barcelona in that guise – it’ll look ridiculous!

Not so, says Letts. With WhatsApp's $19 billion acquisition, it appears as Facebook matures, there is a clear need to appeal to the millennial age group for whom it has become just a tad old-fashioned, he argues.

This is where apps like Snapchat and Instagram have carved a niche for themselves – and in WhatApp's case, a niche of a staggering 400 million users. But will it prove to be an embarrassing over-compensation, asks Letts. Dad in shorts? Or a new lease of life for Zuckerberg's dream? Only time will tell, he says.

Well that’s not much use to me is it? 

Maybe Bertrand Schmitt, the CEO of App Annie (the global app market analyst) will have some perspective.

"The acquisition of WhatsApp highlights the importance [of social messaging],” says Schmitt, as does the fact that the other players, Kakao, Kik, Line, Tango and Tencent, have all created platforms with large installed bases and successful monetisation strategies.”

Personally speaking, I’d describe anyone who takes you into their confidence, then start selling your private information, as pretty antisocial. In the heyday of tabloid newspapers, these were described as kiss and tell merchants.

“Facebook is acquiring more than technology, it now has a foothold into the social messaging arena," says Schmitt. My point entirely – except maybe he thinks it’s a good thing.

Not everyone does.

People are getting tired fatigued by the "noise" and large amounts of irrelevant information coming at them on a daily and hourly basis, says Oudi Antebi, senior vice president of product management and design at Jive Software. Good man. I’d like him even more if only he’d shorten his job title!

So 2014 will be the year that smaller, more real-time mobile communication and collaboration networks will grow - allowing people to only share certain information among a select group of people, he predicts.

Let’s hope he’s right.

This is the theory behind start up 23Snaps, which aims to protect people’s privacy by creating closed groups that give you more control over who knows what you did last summer. 

“It becomes ever easier to trade privacy and security for convenience, but we want to buck the trend of gobbling up data to sell to the highest bidder,” says Meaghan Fitzgerald, the marketing director of this brave start-up. “One of our company's central tenets is that we will never sell user data.”

The issue of the digital legacy we leave the next generation becomes more fraught with every network that encourages public sharing of data.

That’s ‘next generation’ as in vulnerable youngsters. Not ‘next generation’ technology. We all know which is more important to the global marketing, search engine optimising, content branding crowd don’t we?

This was last published in February 2014

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Great article! Good to see a humorous spin on a slightly over hashed subject. As you’ve mentioned, teenagers have become bored with Facebook. Too many “targeted ads”, not to mention its recent algorithm change favouring sponsored content has sent many of them packing. By securing Whatsapp, Facebook is essentially begging young people to come back to its platform. What Facebook is forgetting however, is that teenagers are fickle. It doesn’t matter if you fix the problem; once they’ve moved on they’ll be unlikely to return. Loyalty simply doesn’t exist in their DNA.
Whilst I agree that the young generation can be fickle, I don't believe it's because of a lack of loyalty. We're at a point where trust and consent have different meanings where it comes to social networks. I dare say the vast majority of us accept T&Cs without reading them, so how can we form reasonable service expectations?