WhatsApp’s refusal to let users hide their online status is a huge issue that’s being called out by sites profiting off the feature. Tracking sites that keep tabs on user activity for the purposes of catching cheating partners have pointed the finger at Facebook for their existence.
Speaking to Motherboard, the administrator of one such website has voiced their support for WhatsApp users being able to change their online status. This is despite the site charging users to see their target’s WhatsApp online history, get notifications when they go online, as well as tracking activity to ascertain whether two users are in contact.
The site charges $3 per week, as well as presenting a $10 a month option offered after a free trial period. The administrator told Motherboard that currently, the site “make no profits,” adding that “yes Facebook does shut down accounts and it’s a bit of a whack a mole game that we really don’t want to play. And yes they usually win.”
Rather than address their own choice to offer such a service, which is being shut down repeatedly as they describe, administrator said the site lays the blame on Facebook.
“We feel WhatsApp should remove online statuses access from numbers that are not mutual contacts. This is the only reason we can operate, if they do that us and all the other apps who do the same will not be able to operate.”
Delving into the finer details of the service the site offers, the administrator described how they “track sleep patterns, use regression analysis to give you probability of a chat between two people, for us it’s just a fun (albeit challenging) way to shed light on the privacy issue.”
This is no doubt less fun for those being tracked, or the people whose paranoia is being monetized. And there are other ways to highlight privacy issues that would be entirely victimless. The site explicitly pushes itself as a way to track suspected cheaters, but can be used by anyone to spy on a user if they’re willing to hand over the fee. The admin Motherboard spoke to said they’re “considering stopping,” referring to the their stalking service as a “game” that will possibly be set aside so they can “focus on other projects.”
They added: “We feel the point has been made repeatedly and we salute [Facebook] for their ability to fight back effectively but it would be so much easier if they removed Online status access from non-mutual contacts, for the privacy of their users, not for us.”
WhatsApp’s FAQ makes it clear that users can’t hide when they are online, or when they’re typing. The company told Motherboard that user feedback suggests that “knowing when someone in their contacts is ‘online’ provides a sense of closeness when friends and family are chatting with one another.” Apparently that feedback is being universally applied to all users, regardless of whether they want to appear online or not.