If you had to name the revolutions that changed your life, WhatsApp would be pretty high on that list. The messaging app currently has more than 1.5 billion users across the world. It went from an app with a rocky start to one that has brought governments to power.
WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook, recently confirmed that Israeli firm NSO Group’s spyware Pegasus had breached its video calling system to gain access to the app and spied on journalists, government officials, activists, lawyers in several countries, including India, for a two-week period in May. WhatsApp has now sued the NSO Group.
What started as a status-sharing platform, then became a miracle in the communication world, then became a political weapon for mass dissemination of propaganda, and eventually became a tool of state surveillance. It is now seeing some exits after the Pegasus spyware hacking episode — a ‘Whexit’ if you will.
And that’s why WhatsApp is ThePrint’s newsmaker of the week.
This is the origin story
WhatsApp was started in 2009 by Brian Acton and Jan Koum — both had left their job at Yahoo!. After being rejected by Facebook, they wanted to build a status-sharing platform that lets friends, family and contacts know what’s up — hence the name. Can’t pick up a call? At the gym? In a meeting? WhatsApp statuses could be the solution.
Jan Koum had discovered the potential of the Apple app store early on and convinced Acton about his idea. They now had to look for an iOS developer. In a digital world, everything is just a summon away. The duo hired Russian developer Igor Solomennikov through RentACoder.com.
The app was launched — but it didn’t get rave reviews. It would crash, hang, drain the battery. But things changed when Apple introduced push notifications in June 2009. Now you could instantly let many know your status.
The demand increased. This led the founders to create WhatsApp 2.0 — where users could chat, send messages through the internet by just registering their mobile number. It was a hit. WhatsApp’s competitor, BlackBerry Messenger, was exclusive to Blackberry users — here was an app that democratised the ability to chat online and cost only $0.99 to use it.
Many say, WhatsApp did to SMSes and messaging, what Skype did to expensive international calls.
Soon, WhatsApp allowed sharing of media files. There was no turning back. By October 2011, WhatsApp was used to send 1 billion messages per day. It had nearly 200 million users by 2013 and was valued at $1.5 billion.
As fate would have it, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook came knocking at Acton and Koum’s door. It saw the potential of the cross-platform messaging app and bought WhatsApp for a record $19 billion (its largest acquisition to date, over and above Instagram) in 2014. When Facebook acquired it, WhatsApp had a staff of just 35. Now, it is the most popular messaging app in the world.
This is the political story
Not only that, in many countries like Brazil and India, WhatsApp has become a political weapon and a force to reckon with.
When PM Narendra Modi came to power for the first time in 2014, WhatsApp had around five crore monthly active users in India. Before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, India had become WhatsApp’s biggest market in the world — some estimate there are over 30 crore users in India. Obviously, its political potential was not lost on anyone. Ahead of state assembly elections late last year, PM Modi even sat with a small group to discuss the Bharatiya Janata Party’s WhatsApp campaign. It was decided that one person would be designated in each booth of the country to streamline WhatsApp content, share messages, videos and pictures.
There is absolutely no WhatsApp user in the country to whom the “PM Modi No.1” messages have not been forwarded to. For some, WhatsApp forwards have become more trustworthy than news — which led to it being mocked as ‘WhatsApp University’.
WhatsApp is dangerous now. “While a majority seems to distrust the information received over WhatsApp, a sizeable section of users, close to 30 per cent, have faith in what they encounter on the messaging app,” reported Mint based on a Lokniti-CSDS survey.
Much more than the relatively-harmless ‘Good Morning’ forwards, WhatsApp has been used in India to spread misinformation, fake news, political propaganda. In 2017, one-sixth of WhatsApp users in India reported that they were members of a group started by a politician or a political party.
It doesn’t take much time for political propaganda to draw blood. WhatsApp has led to more than 30 deaths and lynchings in India — from Jharkhand to Tamil Nadu to Assam. This is also where Islamophobia, us-vs-them and Hindutva propaganda took a rabid turn.
WhatsApp, under pressure from all quarters, has limited the number of forwards, put an alert for forwards and introduced a ‘report’ option. But what happens under encryption, stays under (end-to-end) encryption.
This is the Pegasus story
Concerned over safety issues in WhatsApp and differences with data-hungry Facebook, both the founders have left WhatsApp. Brian Acton left in 2017 to join Signal Foundation and Jan Koum called it quits over data privacy and business model issues with Facebook last year.
Now, WhatsApp is losing sleep over a significant breach by the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Pegasus can read texts, call histories, locations, passwords — all it takes is a WhatsApp call, doesn’t matter if you picked it up or not.
Pegasus is so potent a spyware that the Israeli government has classified it as a weapon. And it is only sold to credible government agencies. The New York Times called spyware like Pegasus and Karma (owned by DarkMatter) “internet mercenaries”.
Since the story broke, more and more Indians, who thus far looked fondly at WhatsApp as a platform for reunions and jokes, have been looking for alternative messaging platforms. Alternatives such as Edward Snowden-recommended Signal, Telegram, and WeChat are gaining new users.
“Looking back, there hasn’t been a single day in WhatsApp’s 10-year journey when this service was secure,” wrote Parel Durov, the founder of Telegram, in a blog post.