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Ejo #133 – R.I.P. WhatsApp

When I was 21 years old I was involved in a carjacking.  My boyfriend Allister and I had driven from Melbourne to Sydney in his old poo-brown, stationwagon jalopy so that he could play in a squash tournament.  The car was an absolute piece of shit, with a loosey goosey gearbox and sloppy brakes, but it got us up there in one piece. The first day there, Al was given a lift into the city where the tournament was being held.  The plan was for me to drive to the local station and catch the train into town to meet up with him after his matches. 

When I got to the train station parking lot, it was full so I did a slow lap.  I remember noticing a large Maori guy bending down beside a white vehicle and figured he must have a flat tyre.  Poor guy, I thought, and promptly forgot about it as I slotted into a newly vacated spot a few cars down.  Yay!!  I grabbed my bag and looked up to find the large man I’d seen earlier, standing right outside my window.  I startled in my seat, but didn’t immediately think the worst.  He leaned down, so that his face was level with mine, and started saying something.  I wasn’t loving the direction that this was headed, but I still had no real reason to be worried.  I acted dumb, but he made the signal to wind down my window, so I reluctantly cracked it open. Pointing to his bulging pocket, he very politely explained to me that he had a gun and that he needed my car and could I please get out so that he could take it from me.  Turns out the situation actually was as bad as it had appeared to be. 

You know the cliché about your life flashing before your eyes when you’re about to die?  That did not happen to me.  What did happen was a tsunami surge of adrenaline coursing through my body that focussed my mind into a supercomputer; equations and analyses occurred at the speed of light.  I was calm.  Time slowed. 

What?  Were?  My?  Options? 

I got out of the car.  He just stood there, an inert human mountain of about 6’8”.  I looked up at his face and saw that his eyes were glazed over.  Drugs!  My mind whirred.  I asked him if he was OK?  I guess he was not OK because he reached his arms around me and enveloped me in a big ol’ bear hug.  Yup, right there in the parking lot.  My body pinned and my face smooshed up against his chest, my mind continued to race, assessing the situation, formulating ideas.  I asked him, “Do you need me to drive you somewhere?  I can take you.”  He stepped back and nodded, relief flooding his face.  And thus, our fates were sealed. 

I got back in the car picturing, in my mind’s eye, scenario after gruesome scenario in which I would deliberately crash the car into a tree, or a parked car, or a wall.  I fastened my seatbelt, repeatedly imagining his body flying through the windscreen, at speed.  In real life I watched him moving, extremely slowly, around the front of the car, and just like that a new plan emerged.  I was gonna get the fuck out of there.  I was shaking so hard it took me several attempts to get the key into the ignition, but eventually I started her up, jammed it into reverse and floored it.  I didn’t even check to see if it was clear behind me.  I just wanted to get the hell out of there.  Sadly that wasn’t on the cards for me.  The engine redlined, but the car didn’t move.  My heart, which I’d been gagging on at the back of my throat, suddenly plummeted into my rectum.  I looked up through the windscreen at my would-be carjacker, who had suddenly snapped out of his slumber.  I was freshly in his sights.  I chucked the car into reverse and tried again.  The car squealed like a stuck pig, but went nowhere.  Again.  I tried two more times, stalling the engine in my panic.  The noise in my head was building into a violent crescendo.  What the fuck is happening??  Why isn’t this car moving??  And then… I remembered.  I had to hold the gearstick in place, otherwise it would keep popping out.  FUCK!! 

I started the car a final time, as my new buddy approached the passenger side door and tried to open it.  He looked mad.  I was so insane with fear at this point that I just froze when he put his fist to the glass.  I do remember thinking to myself, there is no way on god’s green earth that he’s going to punch through that window.  He pulled his fist back in slow motion.  I squeezed my eyes shut and screamed a little, and next thing I knew I was being showered in broken safety glass, thousands of sharp little shards of confetti scattered all over me.

I’m pretty sure it was at this point that I went into shock.  The fear quietly slipped away, replaced by numbness, as the great hulk of a man at the passenger side of my boyfriend’s shitty car declined the rather easy option of reaching in and opening the door with his hand, in favour of diving in through the window head first, his entire upper body landing in my lap.  My bare legs were scratched and bloody from all the broken glass, but that was the least of my worries.  He yelled into my crotch, “You shouldn’t have done that!” before awkwardly righting himself, as the gun fell out of his tracksuit pocket into the footwell.  I think he’d forgotten about it, but you can rest assured that I was hyper aware of its existence.  I apologised profusely (as one does in these social situations), and desperately tried to come up with a new plan.   What the hell was I going to do now?  I went with the amoeba-brain option of pretending that we were cool and that I was still happy to Uber him to wherever the hell he wanted to go and that it had all just been a big misunderstanding.  And he seemed OK with that. 

“Just drive”, he said. 

I was, as I mentioned earlier, a bit numb by now.  I don’t know why, but I continued to allow the gearstick to pop out of place, and I continued to keep stalling the engine.  The whole while screaming I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  I could sense that he was starting to get a bit edgy, but he was also definitely still under the influence of something soporific, and I thought to myself (in yet another brilliant round of decision making), that I could take advantage of that, so I just kept screaming and popping, screaming and stalling.  And in that space, a new plan blossomed.  I would make a run for it.  My reactions were heightened, his were dulled.  It would work. 

I waited for the right moment, and in a beautifully choreographed series of movements, I unlocked and opened my car door, unclicked my seatbelt, pulled the keys out of the ignition and fucking legged it!!!!!  In my panic, I ran straight up to the first car waiting for a spot in the parking lot, jumped in and screamed, “DRIVE, PLEASE!!!”.  We took off and I saw my wannabe carjacker still sitting in Allister’s passenger side seat, bereft.  His eyes were sad, his mouth agape.  Poor motherfucker was having a pretty bad day, and I had just betrayed him for the second time.  As we rounded the corner, my relief was tempered by the dawning realisation that I had just escaped one grisly situation only to end up in a strange man’s car, in an unfamiliar city.  But my hero was a lovely guy and we drove a big block before returning to the scene of the crime.  I was thrilled to see the flashing blue lights of a police car in attendance, and no sign of my assailant. I profusely thanked my rescuer and made my way back to the car. 

Long story short: the cops took my statement and, as they dropped me off back at the hotel, Constable Catherine turned around and said to me, “You’re a very lucky girl.  You really should have just given him the car”.

Back in our hotel room I drew a bath and lay in the shallow tub, in the dark, for a long time. Just processing what had happened.  Why hadn’t I given him the car?  Why didn’t I just hand over the keys and walk away?  The only answer I’ve ever been able to come up with is that the car wasn’t mine to give, and that it wasn’t his to take.  Now, please don’t think I’m suggesting that anyone else ever do anything as stupid as risk their life for property.  What I did was stupendously dumb.  Still, some part of me feels almost righteous that I had the balls to stand up to someone and say, no, you can not have my shit. 

So, let’s talk about WhatsApp.  If a thug came up to you on the street with a gun and demanded that you unlock your phone and give it to him, I’m sure you would.  No-brainer, it’s just a phone, right?  Not worth dying over.  What if a clean-cut guy, wearing a blue Facebook uniform, woke you up in your bed in the middle of the night, asking to please have access to your phone.  Just so that he could have a quick squizz at your contacts and their home addresses, phone numbers and emails.  Oh, and perhaps he’d also swipe through all your photos.  Maybe even check out those sexy selfies you took that one time (hey, no judgement from me).  He might feel like having a look at your browsing and purchase history.  Would you be cool with that?  What if he promised that he wouldn’t go anywhere near any of your WhatsApp chats, locations or photos.  Pinky swear.  Would that sweeten the deal? 

I have a feeling that none of that would be cool with you and that you would probably decline such a request.  Right?  Some stranger, in your home, looking through your private shit?  Uh huh, no thanks.  But now consider what happens if you continue to use WhatsApp after the 8th February.  A behemoth, rapacious, faceless corporation, already worth half a trillion dollars, will data-rape your mobile phone, 24/7, in every single orifice.  If you wouldn’t hand your unlocked phone over to a stranger, then why would you let Facebook do the exact same thing?  We all need to keep in mind that Facebook is not our friend.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a huge fan of WhatsApp for a long time.  It’s super secure, there are no ads and it’s free.  What’s not to love.  Yes, Facebook acquired the app in 2014 but as far as I could tell, the dumbasses hadn’t figured out how to cash in on it.  And I was loving that, coz… fuck Facebook.  Late last year, a friend in a WhatsApp group I’m part of blew my mind with this statistic: ?Sixty five billion WhatsApp messages are sent every single day.  My response?

My question was answered less than a month later when WhatsApp announced an update to their terms and conditions.  They immediately faced a huge backlash from users, who interpreted the change as meaning that Facebook would now be able to access WhatsApp messages, photos, locations and contacts.  The company issued an FAQ on their website, assuring people that wasn’t the case. 

All this refers to content within WhatsApp – what about the stuff they want to get their dirty hands on, outside of that app? No mention.

Me?  I’m still bailing.  My problem with WhatsApp’s new terms was never that Facebook might be able to access my WhatsApp messages.  These messages are end-to-end encrypted which means they are virtually unhackable.  Nope, WhatsApp’s security is not under scrutiny here; but their privacy most definitely is.  My concern is all the other data on my phone that they want to access and share with Facebook and other apps across their platform.  And I simply do not want them all up in my shit.  At all.  Previously, I was able to opt out of their data-perving.  But, unless you’re in the EU, from the 8th February 2021, it’s either opt-in or be locked out.  And I don’t really respond well to that kind of ultimatum.  Also, you know what else?  There are other options out there.  WhatsApp was great, I really enjoyed using it.  I was a fucking cheerleader for the app, over the years building up a really large network of people that I communicate with regularly through it.  But bitch, you are not the only ho on the street. 

The two main contenders are Signal and Telegram, and both have experienced huge surges in new subscribers since WhatsApp made their announcement.  Which one is better?  I’m Team Signal all the way, and I’ll tell you why.  Of the two, Signal is run as a non-profit, meaning it exists thanks to donations made by users.  I like this a lot because it means that, unlike Facebook or Telegram, they aren’t driven by dollars (and, if you want to donate, you can do so here).  Signal is also the most secure of the three messenger services, having invented the end-to-end encryption protocol that WhatsApp is founded upon.  Telegram doesn’t even default to encrypted messaging.  You have to opt-in to it for each chat.  It also doesn’t allow for encrypted group chats, so overall it’s far less secure.  Signal is also the most private of the three apps, meaning they store absolutely none of your user data.  ZERO!  There are other ways in which Signal prioritises its users’ privacy, including hiding your online presence (so that people can’t see when you’re using the app), not supporting location sharing, inbuilt app-locker, self-destructing messaging and facial pixelation to protect identities.  Signal, Signal, Signal, oi, oi, oi. 

“Data linked to you” means data linked to your actual, personal identity. Where privacy is concerned, Signal wins, hands down. Charts published courtesy of Apple.

Sure, it’s been a monster pain in my ass going through almost all my contacts to let them know that I’ve switched over to Signal.  But I did it, because I need to keep in touch with my family and friends.  I live away from my home, in a country in which it hasn’t been really easy for me to find new friendships.  After deleting Facebook, I relied exclusively on WhatsApp to keep me connected.  And in a way, I feel like that was one of the reasons they delayed their trademark chicanery.  The more entrenched WhatsApp became, the more reliant people became on it to communicate, the harder we would find it to leave when Facebook did decide to let themselves in the backdoor (did someone say 65 billion messages a day??).  And I’ve seen that with a few of my contacts just throwing up their hands and saying that it’s too hard for them to switch over.  They feel like they have no choice.  And that makes me so sad for them. For us all. Are we really so complacent about our own personal information (and the information of our contacts) being bought and sold that we just accept it, because it’s more convenient?  Are we really happy to be held hostage, because downloading a new app feels like too much of a hassle?  It would appear so. 

I am sick to death of Facebook trying to get their dirty, creepy, sticky fingers into everything we do.  Their manically capitalistic desire for growth means that FB will never be happy with the amount of information it can scrape from your device, or from your life.  It will always want more. So even if you are happy to allow them the access they currently seek, do you really think that’s where they’ll stop?  When have they ever stopped before?  They’ve only ever sidestepped, backpedalled and hustled around legal obstacles.  Of course they have issued apologies for overstepping – but only when they’ve been caught.  Time and again, they’ve demonstrated that they simply cannot be trusted.  Why would you start trusting them now?  Especially knowing that Facebook ultimately aspires to one day actually read our goddamn minds (all the better to target advertisements for our purchasing convenience, no doubt).  Don’t believe me?  Read all about it here and here.  That’s not terrifying AT ALL!!  And you wonder why I’m freaking out over a tiny little change in terms and conditions. 

At the end of the day, after reading all this, you still might think I’m over-reacting.  C’mon Chryss, it’s just a little bit of info from your phone.  Maybe.  But that feisty young woman who fought a drugged-up carjacker trying to steal her car 29 years ago? She’s still inside of me. Only now, she’s fighting an evil data-jacker trying to steal her personal information. Not on my watch.