My six days in Barcelona for MWC had me using one app far more than usual: WhatsApp. But while I often delight in seeing people route their communications out from under the control of incumbent telecom operators, every time somebody asked me to message or call them in that Meta-owned app, I felt a little more grumpy.
That’s because WhatsApp continues to lack a feature found on any 1970s Trimline phone or on a turn-of-the-century, five-line-display cell phone: You cannot text or call a random set of digits unless you first let this app ingest your entire contacts list.
As WhatsApp says in two of the more shameful dialogs around: “To make a call, allow WhatsApp access to your contacts” and “To help you message friends and family on WhatsApp, allow WhatsApp access to your contacts.”
I got tired years ago of apps making sweeping demands for my data and don’t see any reason for contacts upload to be a prerequisite to pinging somebody I just met and may never run into again, so I keep declining that request.
WhatsApp’s FAQ item about contact upload makes a respectable argument for its stewardship of this data, saying it doesn’t collect non-phone-number contact details and deletes the numbers of non-WhatsApp-using people after saving a cryptographic hash of their digits for future cross-referencing should they join later.
But WhatsApp’s parent firm has racked up quite a list of privacy violations, some of which led to the Federal Trade Commission hitting it with a $5 billion fine in 2019 that still stands as a record penalty.
And that WhatsApp FAQ item doesn’t even try to answer why without contacts permission, the app won’t let you punch in any random phone number to start a chat or call. Or how if you revoke that permission, it will stop showing the names of contacts–a creepy move that in 2019 Fast Company’s Michael Grothaus called “one of the most manipulative things Facebook does with WhatsApp.”
In the U.S., being a WhatsApp contacts-access refusenik isn’t so bad, because most people still use carrier texting services. But in the rest of the world, historically higher carrier prices for messaging have made WhatsApp far more widely used. And at MWC that led to some awkward moments.
Most of the time, I could socially engineer my way out of them by asking my new acuaintance to message me from their copy of WhatsApp, at which point I could reply from my copy. One MWC attendee then pointed me to the option to have WhatsApp show a QR code that other people can scan to add you to their contacts lists.
And after coming home, I learned of the click-to-chat option in which you can type in a wa.me Web address in your phone’s browser that ends with a contact’s number (no dashes or spaces) to have the app open a chat thread with that individual.
It’s good, I guess, that WhatsApp provides workarounds for its own demand for the data of people who may have zero interest in seeing their numbers get uploaded even briefly. It would be better if WhatsApp would show a little humility and end this gropey, growth-hacking nonsense.