WhatsApp’s new feature is commendable, but here is why it may not solve some of Africa’s ‘freedom’ problems

Following Apple’s defiance under the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s intimidation, social media app, WhatsApp, seems to have borrowed a leaf from Apple’s book. Yesterday, WhatsApp announced that it was encrypting all incoming and outgoing messages on its app for billions of its customers, a new feature it termed “end-to-end encryption.” This means nobody would be able to hack into the app to retrieve information.

Perhaps the biggest story in the tech world in the past few weeks was the fight between Apple and the FBI. Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone device of a dead terrorist involved in the San Bernardino shootings, at the order of a Supreme Judge, once more emphasised the ethical side of messaging on social networks. WhatsApp, Google and others announced their solidarity with Apple, praising its decision to protect people’s privacy because it would have meant that the FBI could also hack into the private conversations of millions of other iPhone users. FBI eventually had the phone unlocked, through a third party. However, the standoff between both parties started a debate over privacy and how secure your messages are in the tech world.

However, WhatsApp’s new end-to-end encryption means only the sender and receiver know the content of a message. This new feature protects your conversation from hackers; even the WhatsApp company itself is not excluded. This feature has been available on WhatsApp since 2014, but it encrypted only text messages. But now, all types of files on the app, including videos, pictures and documents will pass through the end-to-end encryption. This feature is available for every user upon the updating of the app.

It is still unclear how far this new feature would go to ensure your ultimate privacy on WhatsApp, but it shows where the loyalties of the heads of the tech company lies; with its customers. Jan Koum, one of the co-founders of WhatsApp, who grew up in the stifling atmosphere that was the former Soviet Union, says he believed that the new end-to-end encryption is essential in ensuring the privacy of its consumers. He also mentioned that it will help in preventing hackers and identity thieves, as well as governments from spying on their citizens.

Last December, a Brazilian judge ordered that WhatsApp be shut down for 48 hours after it refused to share private messages of people suspected in an investigation into a crime group with the government. Though a senior judge lifted the ban 12 hours later, this was the first in a series of what was becoming a game changer in privacy and ethical issues in the digital world. While the judge obviously needed the specifics of what was discussed between these criminals, it looked like the Brazilian government already had its suspects. And so, while this new feature is commendable in developed nations, it looks like it won’t solve problems of developing nations, sub-Saharan Africa included.

While the new feature protects content, it really doesn’t protect identities; and sometimes that’s all that is needed by governments to repress freedom in their countries.

Uganda, during its presidential elections last February, temporarily blocked all social networking apps, using its telecoms companies, to prevent Ugandans from “telling lies” during the elections, another term for preventing people from passing information about election irregularities and ballot stuffing. Though many Ugandans found alternative ways to get on social media, they did so at great risk because their identities were not protected. Soon after the elections, Uganda announced its parliament’s intentions to “regulate what goes on in the communication sector for the good of Ugandans and their security,” according to its Information Minister. Really, for the good of Ugandans? Because no one seems to be complaining.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Senate, in its own notoriety, was on its way to enacting a Social Media Bill last year, to allow the government regulate social networking sites and applications too. In a country synonymous with widespread corruption in its public sector, this looks like a move to gag whistle-blowers and prevent freedom of speech. As expected, there was widespread anger to this bill, with the hashtag “SayNoToSocialMediaBill” trending for hours on the Internet. If the bill is passed, a convicted Nigerian faces jail time and a fine of about 2 million Naira.

Moreover, now that most Telecoms companies are at loggerheads with WhatsApp, because of its recent call feature, it looks like they would readily give up identities of WhatsApp users just to enable a government crackdown on the app. It now seems imperative that other features be put in place by WhatsApp to protect identities too; and not just WhatsApp but every other social media app helping the world to be a little better. According to the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If these bills are passed into legislation in these two countries, they might set the precedent for impunity in many others.

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