The notification took the world by storm.

An innocuous looking note from the company flashed on everyone’s WhatsApp screen last week. It rattled people, activist groups and even some governments – a ready reckoner of how deeply dependent we are on #BigTech companies. The crux of the note is that in order to continue using #WhatsApp beyond Feb 8, 2021 (Now revised to May 15, 2021), you will have to provide consent to WhatsApp to share your data with #Facebook.

Note: NO. #Zuckerberg apparently isn’t interested in checking out your steamy texts/ pics, you perv. Not yet, that is. Those are still end-to-end encrypted.

The data that WhatsApp would share with Facebook are: your purchases, financial information, location, contact information, contacts, content (WhatsApp says its the “other” contents including wallpaper, may be status message etc.) , identifiers, usage data, and diagnostics. Let’s think about it for a moment.

Facebook – by the virtue of your overzealous abuse of #hashtags in your post – already knows who you are, what you do and earn, what are your favorite fast food chains, cafes, favorite sports shoe brand etc. Couple this now with the above collected data, easily correlated using your phone number (remember you provided your number to facebook to get OTP if you ever forgot your password? LOL.). Also, they now have your location data – courtesy WhatsApp – at their disposal. So the next time you walk by a #Reebok store, you can expect your #Facebook and #Instagram timelines to be inundated with deals that you never knew you needed. Well, you can thank your own futile New Year Resolution pic that says “One Step towards fitness at a time #Reebok”.

Okay but you know all that already. What might not have crossed your mind however, is that while we try to get our digital catharsis by bashing WhatsApp, we have been unwittingly exposing ourselves to almost the same levels of ads targeting, data correlation and mining in a not so subtle way. Can you guess what it is?

See, most Android phone OEMs (manufacturers) add a layer of Customization on top of the Vanilla or stock android. The result is something called a “custom ROM”. Essentially this means that the OEM would redesign the “skin”, the overall look and feel, an app drawer here, a floating button there, all that stuff. While these provide a different design, they also come with their share of problems. They come preloaded with “bloatwares” – apps and widgets that come preinstalled in the phone that collect your data and show you targeted ads. They have varying levels of access to your on screen activities, notifications, identifiers and contents in the phone. These can’t be uninstalled. Think, and you’ll be able to remember those occasional random pop ups about games, apps, deals or “interesting articles” that you choose to ignore. Custom ROMs are most common among smartphone makers. #OxygenOS by #OnePlus, #ColorOS by #Oppo, #MIUI by #Xiaomi, the list goes on.

So why do they do this? That’s because they earn money from the app makers who pay these OEMs for their apps to be bloatware’d into the phones. The cheaper the phone is, the more bloatware it would likely have. So if your phone has, lets say, Uber, WhatsApp, PayTM, Amazon etc. preinstalled and not removable, then definitely your phone manufacturer made some money by selling these companies a space in your phone.

To be fair to the OEMs, they probably do this to offset their cost of manufacturing and distributing the devices that, considering all things, is quite a lot. So the economics are simple here. Every time you get a smartphone deal that offers impressive configurations for a paltry sum, you are signing up to choose to not only live with those annoying pop ups from these bloatware but also pretty much publishing your digital footprints to them. There are however pure #Android phones in the market like #Motorola, #Pixel by #Google, #Nokia etc. that cost a bit more than their custom ROM counterparts but offer you a clean vanilla stick android experience. The extra money is what you’re paying for your privacy and peace of mind.

So you see, its not always necessarily apparent when you (and your privacy) are taken for a ride without you knowing it. And its not necessarily always bad. For example, I often find facebook/ instagram ads (based on my browser’s cookie/ history) and personalized recommendations quite helpful. I actually found my favorite gourmet coffee brand by chancing upon a not so random ad in #Instagram that I ended up trying and ultimately falling in love with.

But the Question is: How far is too far, when it comes to businesses snooping upon our digital identities?

Let me know in the comments.

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