Disclaimer: All thoughts are my own and does not reflect the views of my employer in any way.
Telegram saw 8M downloads the day Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook. This is not new. When Parse was acquired by Facebook, the blogs rushed to write about why this is great for their rivals. Stackmob accelerated its Parse migration pipeline and came out with it in just a weekend! There was outrage when Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo!.
There are, of course, several reasons for such reactions and in each case, it is slightly different. Early adopters get so entrenched in their favorite platforms that there is a sense of ownership – when a drastic change occurs, it feels like their trust has been misplaced or that they have been betrayed. But, beyond all this, there is another challenge here that we are seeing, such as in the case of the Whatsapp-Facebook situation – why should Facebook have all my data? This alone causes a split market in terms of data ownership.
When Facebook published its recent upgrade to the Android app, it asked for permission to read SMS. As much as I like to be on top of the world of mobile apps, I said no to the upgrade on my primary phone. I had enough secondary devices on which I don’t use SMS to try out the new app! To this day, my Facebook remains at v3.9 on my primary phone! The thought of Facebook reading my text messages just did not sit well with me. Of course, now I’m faced with the challenge of using or not using Whatsapp! (Just to remove any ambiguity, I fully plan on continuing to use Whatsapp, unless Facebook decides to mess with it like LinkedIn did with Pulse!).
Recently, a friend that I recommended SwiftKey to said that he did not agree to SwiftKey learning from his GMail – they had no business knowing the content of his emails! My reasoning around the benefits of personalization that can shave off minutes in typing a single email did not manage to convince him.
So, what exactly is behind these strong feelings about who can or cannot read the various parts of our data? Mostly, just personal principles. For most people, when it comes down to it, as long as the data is “secure” and “private”, this means nothing and they only stand to benefit from all the personalization it can enable. However, there are two problems – we don’t always believe it is in fact, “secure” and “private” and we have our biases in which companies we love and trust.
But the knee jerk reaction to these acquisitions tells a very interesting story. In reality, we are faced with this particular challenge:
Do I want to give more of my data to the bigger companies that can aggregate various types of data to learn all kinds of crazy things about me? Or, do I want to give my data to a small startup that has no resources to even consider implementing security correctly?
This is a very difficult conundrum, particularly because, “implementing security correctly” is a non-trivial task, that most developers are quite bad at by default. When you are big, you have a responsibility to keep the data secure – way more so than we can imagine. When you are small, there is no real upside to spending the time on security. It slows down the development to think about it from an architectural perspective and get the pieces right. All the security holes in Snapchat and other small apps are testimony to this. Security gaps happen even in big companies, where this is taken seriously and experts are hired to ensure correctness. One can imagine why it is more or less just “winged” in the smaller ones. This is not a reflection of anything in particular – it is often just a lack of resources to focus on everything, when you are a startup.
I don’t particularly have an answer to this conundrum. But, as a user, convenience trumps everything – which means that I will use an app from a small startup if it does the right things to make my life simpler. That said, I generally have less issues with giving up my privacy to the bigger companies – the value that personalization can bring is huge and I’m looking forward to it!