New year, new privacy debate
January 10, 2020

A conversational newsletter from Zendesk

I hope your holiday was more relaxing than WhatsApp’s, which reported a record 100 billion messages on December 31. 

How’s that for a New Year’s Eve bash?

We've finally reached 2020 and that means two things: We’re being pummeled with 20/20 vision puns, and California’s new privacy act has come into effect. 

The law entitles Californians to find out what data large companies have collected about them and to have them delete it. 

While it’s only a state law, it sets a new privacy standard that many businesses will eventually apply globally, much like Europe’s GDPR. 

It also signals that the debate over privacy — and, by extension, private messaging — is far from over.

iSpy 👁

Privacy is all about trade-offs. Consumers love free (read: ad-supported) services, but don’t love being targeted with advertising. 

Encrypted messaging channels like WhatsApp, Telegram and iMessage keep our conversations safe from bad actors but make it harder for law enforcement to catch the bad guys (much to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr’s chagrin). 

In December, the New York Times released a major investigative report that demonstrated how much personal information we unwittingly share via the location-aware apps on our phones.

Then, a couple days later, the same paper broke the news that Apple and Google had removed a messaging app called ToTok — not to be confused with Chinese unicorn TikTok — from their app stores amid suspicions it was an Emirati spying tool (though it’s now back on Google Play). 

According to the report, the app comes from an intelligence and hacking firm in Abu Dhabi contracted by the United Arab Emirates government and currently under investigation by the FBI. 

As one security expert told the Times, there’s a certain evil genius at work here:

You don’t need to hack people to spy on them if you can get people to willingly download this app to their phone.


Can I ask who’s texting? ✅

As consumers become more privacy-conscious, the question is how Big Tech — whose four biggest players are now worth more than $4 trillion combined — can gain (or maintain) their trust. 

Google, for its part, has introduced a new way to help people determine if the messages they receive from businesses are legit. As PaymentsSource reports, messaging has become the latest pond for sophisticated phishing scams. 

Google’s Verified SMS lets businesses create official profiles, including a company logo, so the texts they send customers no longer come from some random number. 

This feature is already baked into Apple and WhatsApp’s business messaging platforms, as well as Google’s own cause célèbre, RCS business messaging

As longtime readers know, RCS is the next-gen texting standard that’s been vying to replace SMS for more than a decade. It finally seems to be gaining momentum, thanks in part to its business-friendly features, so it’s interesting to see Google giving the older standard some love. 

The real head scratcher is that Verified SMS is not compatible with RCS and only works with Google’s own Messages app on Android phones. 

It seems like Google’s business messaging strategy is becoming as complex as its much-maligned consumer messaging strategy.

A ploy named sue ⚖️

Meanwhile, WhatsApp is taking a more litigious approach to building consumer trust and combating messaging spam. 

Last month Facebook declared it would start taking legal action against users who violate prohibitions against bulk messaging on its leading messaging app. 

WhatsApp has been clear that its Business API is meant for customer engagement, not mass advertising. Zuckerberg and company know that if consumers are going to invite brands into their most sacred inboxes, they need to trust Facebook to embrace its role as gatekeeper. 

By threatening to sue anyone who violates that trust, Facebook is showing consumers it means business.

The Rise of Offline Messaging 

WhatsApp and other OTT messaging apps have become especially popular in countries where data is cheap and phone plans are expensive. 

But in times of civil unrest, that’s made it easy for authoritarian governments to cripple communication by simply killing the switch. 

No internet, no problem 📻 

In response to internet blackouts in places like Hong Kong, India, and Sri Lanka, a number of chat apps have cropped up that don’t rely on an internet connection at all. 

Bridgefy uses Bluetooth to send and receive messages. Users can chat privately with contacts within 100 metres of each other or use “broadcast mode” to send messages to every Bridgefy user within that radius (how’s that for bulk messaging?). 

Another Bluetooth-based app called FireChat has seen a 7,500% increase in downloads since protests over India’s Citizen Amendment Act led to a series of internet blackouts, according to The Print.

The New Delhi-based publication spoke to a man who said he first used FireChat in 2014, when flooding in Kashmir brought down the internet and phone lines. His reviews were mixed:


“Of course the app is not the equivalent of using a regular app that relies on the internet,” he said. “But it was useful.”


👋 Thanks for reading! Feel free to send me your feedback, questions and spy stories by responding to this email. 

Dan Levy

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