When the news came, there was a touch of inevitability to it. More and more Indians are fleeing WhatsApp. The messaging app had become a household phenomenon here—some would say a menace—even before Facebook acquired it in early 2014. No wonder it paid a humongous $19.3 billion for it.
Long constrained by plain-vanilla text messaging, India felt almost collectively liberated by this new toy on their smartphone that allowed them to send and receive images, videos and a new item of consumption: memes. The sheer explosion of flower-bedecked “good morning” memes initially seemed an innocuous botheration when families strewn apart could be in touch. A sinister edge was soon visible, however, as talk turned to how collective forwards of politically loaded (often fake) ‘news’ was beginning to influence elections and cause lynchings. The 2014 election results, analysts said, had come more on the back of this parallel network than mainstream media—India is, after all, WhatsApp’s largest market, with 200-300 million active users, and the BJP had thus penetrated deep into rural India.
Now, we have reached the next level of fear. Facebook was already facing angry questions over its cavalier and motivated privacy rules: take the recent grilling of Mark Zuckerberg by US lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. FB has now announced that it is suing Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO for hacking into its (apparently end-to-end encrypted) messaging app with a spyware. As many as 1,400 Indians, including lawyers, activists, defence journalists and politicians, were targeted.
NSO, headquartered in Herzilulya, near Tel Aviv, has moved to an undisclosed location. But where can citizens hide when their privacy is violated? For now, competing apps like Signal and Telegram, it seems. FB’s action is belated: WhatsApp downloads have dipped by 80%. The rest of the battle is up to our institutions and civil society, or what’s left of it.