WhatsApp is one of, if not the, most popular messaging platforms in the world. It’s seen as a secure and safe place for billions of users to communicate freely — guarded by secure end-to-end encryption.
It’s also owned by the man who once said “You can be unethical and still be legal.” So, when WhatsApp recently appeared to be accessing people’s phone mic every few minutes for no reason, there was justifiable concern.
"It's just a bug"
Last month, Android users noticed that their phone’s Privacy Dashboard was showing an alarming amount of microphone activity from the Meta-owned messaging app WhatsApp. One such startled user was former Twitter engineer, and ironically anagrammed “D afraid boi,” Foad Dabiri.
Dabiri garnered over 100 million views on a tweet showing WhatsApp’s activity on the Android Privacy Dashboard – showcasing the app’s frequent use of his phone’s microphone even while he was asleep. The tweet even caught the attention of Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who raised a digital eyebrow in Meta’s direction by responding with a “That’s weird.”
Hot take, Elon. Hot take.
WhatsApp has been using the microphone in the background, while I was asleep and since I woke up at 6AM (and that's just a part of the timeline!) What's going on? pic.twitter.com/pNIfe4VlHVMay 6, 2023
However, we can all breathe a sigh of relief – as WhatsApp was quick to point out that this was just a bug in Android that was misidentifying mic access in the Privacy Dashboard. Google themselves corroborated this yesterday in a tweet that highlights “erroneous privacy indicators and notifications in the Android Privacy Dashboard.” (Oh good, so it's just that the privacy detection on Android doesn't work properly...wait a minute, that's quite bad too.)
But as far as WhatsApp is concerned, I guess that’s that. No looming conspiracy here, no cause for concern, nothing to see here, move along… Except… That does sound a little familiar doesn’t it? Haven’t we heard that one before? Am I suffering from a case of the digital deja-vous or something?
It's always "Just a bug"
It’s not the first time we’ve heard that excuse, is it? In fact, since the dawn of virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa we’ve heard that exact phrasing be used when it comes to software making liberal use of its microphone access privileges.
There was the Google Home Mini’s long-touch 'bug' that merrily snooped through your private lives until Google disabled the feature entirely. What about the 'bug' in iOS 15 that saw Siri secretly forward conversations to Apple?
Time and time again we are told that the notion that our devices are constantly listening to us and harvesting some sort of information is just a fantasy – and any occasion where they’ve been found to do so is “just a bug.” It’s an accident, our corporate overlords never meant to harvest all that additional data. It’s not like they make money from it or anything.
And if you don’t believe that then you’re some sort of a wild conspiracy theorist, living out in the woods and curling your fists over globalists and the latest He-man reboot. No. We don’t care how many conversations you’ve had with friends that have resulted in you being bombarded with eerily accurate ads afterwards, you take your crack-pot lunacy elsewhere.
At what point do we have to start pointing out this “just a bug” trend for what it really is? I’m no Biz Markie, but I know a “Just a friend” red flag when I see one.
I’m happy to believe that WhatsApp probably wasn’t spying on users this time, but we’re right to be suspicious. Why wouldn’t they? While we’re all shouting “To the moon” at cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the cuff-linked gremlins running our corporatocracy are peddling in the real digital super currency – data.
We litter the sidewalks of the internet with our data on the daily without so much as a second thought, allowing it to be vacuumed up, fed into an algorithmic loom, and woven into a tapestry of marketing tactics designed to ensnare even the most stubborn among us.
While this story might have fallen in WhatsApp’s favor, it’s a stark reminder that there’s a real threat out there from companies who are more than happy to take advantage of opt-in by default data collection, information harvesting, and muddied terms of service agreements to get what they want – more of your valuable, precious data.
I mean who even reads terms of services? I’ve clicked agree on every terms of service I’ve ever seen without reading a single line of it. For all I know Mark Zuckerberg has my soul in a mason jar within the basement of Meta HQ. My advice? Drop all that conspiracy theory stigma, the chances are that your phone is spying on you, so learn how to stop it.
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Rael Hornby, potentially influenced by far too many LucasArts titles at an early age, once thought he’d grow up to be a mighty pirate. However, after several interventions with close friends and family members, you’re now much more likely to see his name attached to the bylines of tech articles. While not maintaining a double life as an aspiring writer by day and indie game dev by night, you’ll find him sat in a corner somewhere muttering to himself about microtransactions or hunting down promising indie games on Twitter.