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Why we should be afraid if WhatsApp becomes a marketing platform

I had a call with a telco executive Florian Goppel to discuss about why he does not use WhatsApp and Facebook, and why he would sell his personal data to a bookstore get bet personalised deals.

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

My colleague introduced me to Florian via LinkedIn. Florian Goppel is an executive at a telecommunication operator in Switzerland. I wanted to speak to Florian as he is a privacy-conscious professional who is experienced both in corporate legal affairs and new technology. My colleague had hinted me that Florian uses neither WhatsApp nor Facebook. It made me curious to know his reasons and would be ready to sell his personal data?

Florian, why should you stop using WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger?

It is the collection of metadata, Florian explains. Starting from which page you visit, to the content you read. Whatsapp knows who do you reply always without delay or who do you message when you are drunk. He says that it used to take an enormous amount of manpower to analyse all the metadata. Now with artificial intelligence, there is an endless amount of possibilities to build a profile out of your metadata in a split second.

Florian is right. Metadata is “data providing information about one or more aspects of the data”, like the date and time when you send a message. This information is already enough to infer things like who are your friends (people you message frequently) and who do you like the least (the person you take days to write back). Metadata also falls under the scope of privacy laws, like the General Data Protection Regulation, because it can be used in a combination with other information to identify you (Article 4(1) GDPR).

Florian thinks that individuals are unaware of how much metadata can reveal about them, and he is also right in that you should care about the collection of your metadata. You can unintentionally reveal your location by uploading a picture to a social media platform because the metadata that exists in the picture file tells the place where you took the picture.

Another problem is that different platform providers like Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, can save and read your metadata. Facebook messenger, for example, does not encrypt messages, and where Whatsapp messages are end-to-end encrypted, the metadata is not. WhatsApp can use methods like pattern-of-life analysis or map out behavioural indications between you and the people you interact with the most on WhatsApp to learn where you live and work.

Consequently, WhatsApp knows things about you that advertisers would like to know. So far, Mark Zuckerberg has said that WhatsApp does not share metadata with Facebook, but it has been exploring the idea of having advertisement on WhatsApp and there should be no doubt that Facebook is looking for a way to monetise the 300 million users on the platform.

Should individuals also get a share in the data economy? In other words, should you sell your data?

Florian likes the idea of having more control as an end-user. Anyways, we have always shared information, he says. When you go to a physical shop, a shopkeeper evaluates you based on what you wear, which car you drive, and so on. He will then sell you accordingly. Florian says that similarly, he is ready to give information to a bookshop to get good book deals. Provided, he gets to choose what information is shared.

How much do you think your data is worth?

Florian starts by saying, it is difficult to price data. If you look at Facebook’s average revenue per user (ARPU), it is about 29 dollars, and that includes a lot of different data points. If Facebook would share profits with users and give a percentage from 29 dollars per year, it is not a lot.

Source: Statista

I would however argue that Facebook’s ARPU gives a wrong indication of the value of personal data. Facebook does not have a need to buy your data. It is the companies advertising on Facebook or other social media platforms that want to know who to advertise and what kind of advertisement they should show. Looking at the online marketing budget of companies and how much money is spent on personalisation, can give a better understanding on the potential value of data.

What are the benefits of personal data monetisation?

Florian believes that personal data markets could help individuals to understand how companies use their data in marketing. Why do you see an ad on your social media feed or on a website you visit, and why does your wife see a different one? In Florian’s view, it could be beneficial to understand how the algorithms work that decide what is displayed to us online.

Indeed the GDPR gives individuals a right to explanation whenever they have been subjected to an automated decision.

“The data subject shall have the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her.” (Article 22)

However, there are three main issues that are making it complicated to exercise this right.

First, Silvan Jogerius writes that AI makes an ‘immeasurable number of micro-decisions because of large sets of data and based on ever-evolving mathematical equations’. Even the data scientist who creates an algorithm cannot always pinpoint the exact rationale that it used out of the thousands of decisions it makes daily.

Second, algorithms are often proprietary, and it is in the interest of the companies not to disclose them.

Third, algorithms learn with data. If the data is about A, it will not know that B exists. Hence, there is always a risk of bias. As exemplified with Data for Black Lives movement led by Yeshimabeit Milner. Florian also raises this concern. He says we are fortifying every mistake done in the past forty years. For example, historically, women have been paid less, in terms of salary. This will not change if we rely on the current mathematical model, which uses past data as the norm, Florian concludes.


Selling one’s data can give a feeling of control. But as Florian reminds, you need to be able to choose what data you share and what you want to keep private. Such as your metadata. Thus, being able to understand how algorithms make decisions can be informative and raise awareness among consumers.

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Sanna Toropainen

Sanna Toropainen

Writing about the future, ethical data monetisation, privacy laws and start-ups.