There have been reports about WhatsApp potentially eavesdropping on private phone conversations via device microphones. One report came from Fod Dabiri, Twitter’s engineering director who disclosed that WhatApp was using his microphone in the background as he slept, and he only found out when he woke up at around 6 a.m.

The incident has reignited concerns about privacy violations, all the while raising suspicions about Meta’s long-standing data-harvesting practices with no regard for privacy considerations, as well as Sam Altman’s re-launched Worldcoin project (which echoes the same sentiment).

WhatsApp privacy compromised?

The concern was amplified by current Twitter CEO Elon musk, who echoed his opinion by tweeting, “WhatsApp cannot be trusted.”

Numerous reports came from various Google Pixel smartphone users, as detailed by tech enthusiast Jean Leon. But there have also been similar reports from Samsung Galaxy users, including the Galaxy S23 series. Users have suggested revoking microphone and camera permissions for the messaging app, then restarting the device and re-enabling permissions. But the so-called ‘bug’ certainly raises eyebrows.

WhatsApp support eventually said the issue is a bug on Android that mis-attributes information in the Privacy Dashboard. On Wednesday, the WhatsApp team asked Google to investigate the issue.

This is not the first time Meta blamed a ‘bug’ in the code for data breaches.

Meta’s history of privacy breaches

Facebook (Meta) and its subsidiaries have a history of viewing end users as a data gold mine. Leaving aside the endless repository of mysterious data breaches for the multi-billion dollar social media, which seemingly cannot get a handle on its security systems, Instagram was also caught watching users via cameras in 2020, per Bloomberg.

In the lawsuit, Facebook was accused of using facial-recognition technology to illegally harvest the biometric data of its more than 100 million Instagram users.

AI data harvesting

Today, privacy encroachment hasn’t abated. Open-AI founder Sam Altman expressed his intention to harvest sensitive biometric data through the so-called ‘Worldcoin’ project. The tech mogul launched ChatGPT and took the underlying protocol from open-source to closed-source, raising serious concerns about where he is going with it.

Per his own admission, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur wants to be able to scan your iris in exchange for a token created out of thin air (Worldcoin). The Worldcoin project is like something you’d see in a science fiction film like Minority Report or Oblivion. In Sam’s world, his paradoxically named ‘OpenAI’ company would be able to provide “proof of personhood” through its database, in an attempt to introduce a form of universal basic income.

In essence, Sam Altman appears to be taking the same route Mark Zuckerberg has chosen, then going the extra mile with no restrictions on data harvesting. The stark contrast between decentralised cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin, and open-AI’s artificial intelligence trajectory appears to set a precedent for a growing rift between the two technologies.

Decentralised cryptocurrencies empower individuals and human agency, as opposed to obliging a collective reliance on a single company, state or entity. At the same time, large language model technologies could potentially be modelled with open-source, publicly verifiable, privacy-preserving parameters that restrict human rights violations at the protocol layer.

What can users do?

Internet users are beset on all sides, with tech, social media companies and mostly compromised governments vying for a piece of the pie. Indeed, their intentions may not be in line with user expectations. At the very least, users may want to begin charging a fee for relinquishing their data, or for being test subjects in experimental technologies. The question as to whether getting paid in ‘coupons’ minted out of nothing has any value or merit is up to individuals.

On the other hand, internet users may choose to reduce their online and mobile application footprint. Obvious measures include restricting microphone and camera permissions for applications with a history of privacy violations, and using end-to-end encrypted messaging services such as Signal or Keet. Another, somewhat technical option for enhanced mobile privacy is to install the open-source privacy-focused operating system Graphene OS.

On the monetary front, Bitcoin, Litecoin and Monero deliver various iterations of privacy. For instance, Monero delivers the highest privacy standard at the base layer, while Bitcoin and Litecoin are pseudonymous on L1, with secondary layer solutions such as MWEB being available for enhanced privacy.

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