WhatsApp: Social Media Security and Privacy

Introduction

The evolutionary developments in technological and communication gadgets have brought about a series of changes in the way people around the world communicate today. This has been achieved through the introduction of new tools and applications in these gadgets. The applications have been necessitated by the demands of consumers in modern contemporary society. Among these new applications shaping today’s communication industry is ‘WhatsApp’. This is an instant messaging application designed for Smartphone users around the globe (Kietzmann & Hermkens, 2011). According to Kaplan (2012), this application can also be described as a customised version of the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. The application has changed the way Smartphone users communicate with each other. It is noted that through the use of this application, Smartphone users are able to send and share different forms of data with other users. These include images, video, and audio messages. The application helps in sharing the data at a rate that is faster than that in other applications, such as the normal messaging applications in Smartphone. Skype is another such application that has gained widespread popularity over the years. Skype supports such features as video conferencing and instant voice messaging. However, the application is available for internet users only.

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There are various benefits associated with the myriad applications. For example, applications such as WhatsApp have made communication easier and more affordable. In addition to this, the applications do not require any extra phone resources apart from simply installing the operating system software on the phone. This is especially so given that they are free to use. However, there are various concerns raised over the proliferation of such applications. The increasing popularity of the applications has attracted a large number of users, raising concerns as to the adequacy of the measures put in place to guarantee social media security and privacy for WhatsApp users. Social media, in this context, refers to the various platforms that facilitate communication and sharing of data among individuals.

New tools and applications need to be closely monitored to ensure that they are secure and do not pose a threat to the users. WhatsApp, just like any other social media platform, should be carefully assessed to ensure that it does not pose a threat to personal data as well as information systems among the users (Kaplan 2012). To improve the security and privacy of clients using the WhatsApp application, the developers have come up with authentication procedures that protect user accounts through the use of usernames and passwords. These are some of the issues that will be addressed in this paper. The paper is a short report on a specific issue in contemporary telecommunications. The issue, in this case, is WhatsApp and security concerns. This paper seeks to analyse the issue of social media security and privacy in WhatsApp, with the writer illustrating a variety of technical and policy measures that have been put in place to guarantee user security and privacy.

WhatsApp and User Security: Presentation of Subject

There are various cases reported where the security of the users of this application was breached. A case in point is what happened in May 2011. The loophole in this application was exploited when it was reproduced for both Symbian and Android systems. This was done by Hoewijk V. Liroy. He was the head of CorelSP.net by then. Another security breach was reported in early January 2012. An anonymous individual created a website that helped hackers to tamper with accounts of legit users. All the hacker needed, in this case, was the phone number of the account holder. These are just some of the various security breaches that have been reported. Such loopholes should and must be rectified to increase the competitiveness of the application in the market. This way, the application will be able to compete against similar applications, such as Skype.

Social media applications and technologies have been built around short message systems. They serve users from diverse cultures and facilitate communication between persons separated by varying geographical distances. A good example of such social media platforms is the WhatsApp application designed for Smartphone users, as already indicated in this paper. Over time, WhatsApp has gained widespread popularity, drawing a large number of its audience from the young population and the business fraternity. This is in spite of stiff competition from other application developers, such as Skype (Myers & Motti 2011). This has seen WhatsApp handle an average of close to two billion messages every day. The ease associated with the use of WhatsApp, such as the ability to use phone resources like an existing phone book and user’s phone number to facilitate communication, has lured many people into using the application.

A variety of security loopholes in WhatsApp have been reported in the past. A case in point is where users have reported numerous cases of account hijacking. This has led to a breach of social media security and privacy for the users, denting the confidence they had in the application. Security and privacy issues have been raised, with unauthorised parties gaining access to confidential information. One of the most obvious loopholes that had previously been left by WhatsApp developers, and has been exploited by hackers, was the ability of the application to send chat messages as plain texts. This means that messages were previously sent over social media without any form of encryption. In turn, this meant that unauthorised persons could easily access messages without the knowledge of the legal account owners. As a result of this, the application appeared inferior in the eyes of the consumers as compared to other similar applications, such as Skype, that are known to use trusted encryption techniques (Berners 2011).

The increasing popularity of the use of packet sniffing software still remains a major challenge in attempts to reduce instances of account hijacking and hacking. To this end, WhatsApp is no exception. Hackers have posed serious privacy problems to the customers by illegally tapping into their communications. To this end, Skype came up with various features that protect data as it is transmitted over the internet. Reports have indicated that a special type of packet sniffing software, the WhatsApp Sniffer, has been designed by hackers to tap into messages from users by the use of Wi-Fi, exploiting the vulnerabilities of wireless technology (Turkle 2011). The personal information illegally obtained from such activities can expose users to bullying, harassment as well as extortion from criminals. Desperate measures have thus been put in place by WhatsApp developers to seal these loopholes. Effective measures, such as encryption of messages to protect users from hacking and other forms of hijacking, have been implemented in both WhatsApp and Skype applications.

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WhatsApp and User Security: Discussion of Topic

WhatsApp users, just like any other social networking sites’ users, are potential victims of cyber-crimes (Golder & Huberman 2012). Drastic measures should thus be put in place to cushion the users against the activities of such contemporary criminals. This is especially so given the fact that the criminals are now using sophisticated equipment and software to operate. Developers have made efforts to increase users’ trust in their systems. This is together with increasing the competitiveness of the application in the market, taking into consideration the stiff competition levelled against it by Skype and other applications. Following public outcries as a result of increasing instances of account hijacking, the developers of WhatsApp application have come up with measures to guarantee users of this social media security and privacy as they send and receive data from around the world. It is noted that one of the most effective measures that have been put in place to ensure user security and privacy in WhatsApp is the use of password-protected accounts and the encryption of messages during sending.

Like is the case in any other social media platform, WhatsApp users have to subscribe to the service for them to enjoy it. The signing- in process requires the users to come up with a username and a password of their choice. Skype users are also issued with an online number referred to as Skypeln, which is specific to individual users. Experts have over the years emphasised on the use of strong passwords that cannot be easily guessed or ‘cracked’ by the hackers. This means that for once, the security of the account (or lack of it thereof) is put on the hands of the user. The strength of the password they use will in some way determine the security of their account. Skype users are also provided with unique numbers.

The use of passwords has, however, not fully protected WhatsApp users from cyber-crimes. It is noted that cybercriminals are coming up with more advanced hacking tools and software that aims at exploiting the vulnerabilities posed by issues such as weak passwords (Edy 2011). Snooping activities have also been identified as a possible means of obtaining authentication information from users. In snooping, the individual intending to commit a cyber-crime takes advantage of the user’s carelessness to obtain information such as user name and passwords, information that is necessary for accessing the account. Snooping has been known to affect both WhatsApp and Skype users. As a result, users are advised to avoid writing down their usernames, online numbers, and passwords. They are also advised against disclosing similar information to third parties. This is given the fact that an account is private and should only be managed by a single individual.

WhatsApp developers have also resorted to the encryption of messages that are sent via the application. This is similar to what happens at Skype. The aim is to prevent the messages from being tapped by unauthorised individuals. Encryption of messages means changing the messages into a form that is not easily understood by individuals before it is decrypted (Pajala 2011). This measure discourages hackers from tapping user information since it has to undergo decryption for it to be understood. The communication gadgets, such as phones, through the aid of the WhatsApp application software, have the ability to decrypt the message back to its original form, the form in which it was relayed from the sending device. This method is used to protect information from falling into the wrong hands as it is delivered from the sender to the receiver through communication channels.

Cybercriminals have, however, come up with ways to sabotage security and privacy measures that have been put in place by developers, especially those dealing with WhatsApp application. Skype is considered by many to be more secure as compared to WhatsApp application. This is as a result of the various security features that Skype developers have put in place to ensure the safety and privacy of users. This is, for example, through the use of latest technology encryption. Being knowledgeable individuals, hackers, and such other criminals have the skills and resources required to execute their malicious intentions (Helft & Miller 2011). Most common cyber-crimes today can be linked to acts of hacking and cracking of user accounts, such as emails and social media accounts.

Crackers are individuals with skills to ‘break’ passwords and bypass authentication procedures. Hackers, on the other hand, have the skills to unlawfully obtain coded information such as usernames and passwords. They are mostly programming experts with knowledge of communication protocols. This means that the two applications are vulnerable. Skype, for instance, is Voice-Over-Internet Protocol software. Its use over the internet poses a security risk to the users since the internet is considered to be an insecure network. WhatsApp users have over the years been exposed to risks, such as account hijacking. As such, WhatsApp developers have to be alert to spot weaknesses in the application and correct them in time before they can be used against the users. Information assurance should be treated with the seriousness it deserves (Bradshaw 2011). This is to ensure the security of the users as well as their privacy. What this means is that personal information should not be left unprotected.

Conclusion

Social media platforms have various merits and demerits. In spite of easing communication and providing convenient means of sharing information among the users, the applications have exposed users to a variety of cyber-crimes. As a result of increasing cases of account hijacking, developers are left with no option but to try and protect the interests of the application users (Bradshaw 2011). I feel that, in spite of the various measures put in place to increase social media security and privacy for social media users, criminals will still continue to come up with ways to sabotage the systems. Hoewijk V. Liroy, a former head of CorelSP.net, felt that it is not possible to secure information fully. He verified this claim by reproducing the WhatsApp application in the Android and Symbian systems. This being the case, I feel that social media platforms should promote the welfare of members of society. This is as opposed to harming the people who are using them.

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References

Berners, T 2011, ‘Long live the web: a call for continued open standards and neutrality’, Scientific American, vol. 24 no.1, pp. 11-23.

Bradshaw, T 2011, ‘WhatsApp users get the message’, Financial Times, vol.16 no. 8, pp. 39-61.

Edy, J 2011, ‘Journalistic uses of collective memory’, Journal of Communication, vol. 31 no. 2, pp. 71-85.

Golder, S & Huberman, B 2012, ‘Usage patterns of collaborative tagging systems’, Journal of Information Science, vol. 32 no.2, pp. 198–208.

Helft, M & Miller, C 2011, ‘News analysis: 1986 privacy law is outrun by the Web’, The Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no. 4, pp. 34-67.

Kaplan, M 2012, ‘If you love something, let it go mobile: mobile marketing and mobile social media 4×4’, Business Horizons, vol. 55 no.2, pp. 129-139.

Kietzmann, J & Hermkens, K 2011, ‘Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media’, Business Horizons, vol. 54 no.1, pp. 241-251.

Myers, O & Motti, N 2011, On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

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Pajala, M 2011, ‘Television as an archive of memory’, Critical Studies in Television, vol. 20 no. 2, pp. 133-145.

Turkle, S 2011, Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Old Saybrook, Carolina.

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