Wednesday, January 13 2021

I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are not there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020… You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up.

That’s screenwriter Russell T Davies arguing that only gay male actors should play gay roles. Now, Davies has in the past created many hit shows that involved straight men playing gay roles—including Hugh Grant as Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe in ‘A Very English Scandal’. But the argument did make us stop and think. Which way lies freedom? A Black actor playing a very white role like Macbeth? Or an insistence that an actor’s identity must match the identity of the character? More food for thought: activists claim that using cis male actors to play trans characters “perpetuates the idea that trans people are just wearing a costume, or that trans women are simply ‘men in disguise.’”

Big Story

The panic attack over WhatsApp’s privacy policy

The TLDR: Over the past week, WhatsApp users were greeted with an ominous message that asked them to accept the company’s updated privacy policy—or lose access to the app after February 8. The language of the updated terms of service was vague and ominous—prompting widespread anxiety and rising download numbers for Signal and Telegram. The company has now ‘clarified’ its new policy, but worries still remain—perhaps because no one trusts any company owned by Mark Zuckerberg.


First, tell me what is still safe

Here’s what’s absolutely safe:


Your messages: which are still protected by end-to-end encryption. No one can read them or listen into your WhatsApp calls. The company does not keep logs of your conversations either. You can also choose to make your messages disappear after a certain period of time (see how to do it here).


Your media: Be it funny viral vids to friends & fam or sexy pics to your bae, WhatsApp stores these temporarily on its servers to make it faster to forward. But these are encrypted and not visible to the company and are deleted very quickly. In the end, that media only exists on your phone and that of the receiver.


Your group chats: are every bit as protected as your one-to-one conversations.


Here’s what is still fuzzy:


Your location: Any location information you share via a message is encrypted, as WhatsApp points out in its clarification:


“When you share your location with someone on WhatsApp, your location is protected by end-to-end encryption, which means no one can see your location except the people you share it with.”


But the updated privacy policy also says this:


“We collect and use precise location information from your device with your permission when you choose to use location-related features, like when you decide to share your location with your contacts or view locations nearby or locations others have shared with you… Even if you do not use our location-related features, we use IP addresses and other information like phone number area codes to estimate your general location (e.g., city and country). We also use your location information for diagnostics and troubleshooting purposes.”


So we’re going to file this one under ‘unclear’.  


Your contacts: The clarification insists:


“We don’t share your contacts with Facebook: When you give us permission, we access only the phone numbers from your address book to make messaging fast and reliable, and we don’t share your contacts lists with the other apps Facebook offers.”


But its privacy policy makes it clear that WhatsApp does have access to your contacts—you’re usually prompted to do this when you start using the app. It’s just not sharing that information with Facebook companies… as yet.


So what is it sharing with Facebook then?

Here’s a short list:


  • Phone number and other personal information you provide when you sign up. Example: name.
  • Information about your phone, including make, model, and mobile company.
  • Your internet protocol (IP) addresses, which indicates your location.
  • Any payments and financial transactions made over WhatsApp.


So that’s okay then…

Yes, as long as you stay away from any kind of business communication on WhatsApp. Because then everything you share can be passed along to various third parties, including Facebook. As the clarification makes clear:


“But whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.”


The privacy policy makes this crystal clear:


"Businesses you interact with using our Services may provide us with information about their interactions with you… When you message with a business on WhatsApp, keep in mind that the content you share may be visible to several people in that business. In addition, some businesses might be working with third-party service providers (which may include Facebook) to help manage their communications with their customers. For example, a business may give such third-party service provider access to its communications to send, store, read, manage, or otherwise process them for the business.”


The last is key because Facebook is incentivizing businesses by offering them hosting services to manage their WhatsApp communications with their customers.


Point to note: Back in 2016, WhatsApp users had a small window when they could opt out of sharing any information with Facebook. Those who did are still entirely safe—as the rest of us do not have that option any more.


And it will use this information to do what?

To target you with ads on other platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Almost all of Facebook’s $21.5 billion in revenue in the third quarter of 2020 came from ads. Point to note: There is no plan to serve ads directly on WhatsApp as yet. And Facebook can also then share that information with other third parties/businesses.


What’s still unclear: Are businesses that use WhatsApp incentivised or even tacitly forced to share their user data with Facebook?


Point to note: WhatsApp payments are a core component of Reliance’s partnership with Facebook. The big plan is to use WhatsApp to create a retail juggernaut—and Mukesh-bhai has already made clear that he has zero investment in end-to-end encryption or any other kind of customer privacy. (we explained this partnership here)


This sounds like any other Indian company…

True. Privacy laws are shockingly weak in India since we do not have a data protection law in place. It has been languishing in Parliament for the past two years. As one policy expert points out:


"Section 5 of the Personal Data Protection Bill… says that you can only use the information for purposes that are reasonably linked to the purpose for which the information was given. If that section was there, then this (the new update in WhatsApp’s privacy policy) would have been illegal.”


Many standard business practices in India—which includes blithely demanding and then selling your personal information to third parties—would be illegal as well. Meanwhile, a Parliamentary panel headed by Shashi Tharoor plans to summon WhatsApp to explain its new privacy policy.


(FYI: As we state in our welcome email, we absolutely DO NOT sell or give access to our subscribers personal information to any third party. We don’t use it to target you with bs promotions or ads either. We make our money from your subscriptions! So please refer us far and wide lol!)

Point to note: The updated policy does not apply to Europe and the UK because of its strict privacy laws. WhatsApp users in that part of the world have the right to “access, rectify, port, and erase your information, as well as the right to restrict and object to certain processing of your information.”


So should I move to Signal or Telegram?

Well, many people certainly are—or at least downloading one or more of those apps as a backup. Both have seen a huge surge in users over the past week:


“According to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower, Signal was downloaded globally 246,000 times the week before WhatsApp announced the change on 4 January, and 8.8 million times the week after. This included big surges in India, where downloads went from 12,000 to 2.7 million, the UK (from 7,400 to 191,000) and the US (63,000 to 1.1 million).”


Telegram—which is currently No. 2 behind Signal on the App Store—saw more than 25 million users sign up in just the last 72 hours.


CEO exodus: Top execs across the world—including India—are moving themselves and their staff to Signal. And that includes Elon Musk—who tweeted out his preference, giving the Mumbai police a perfect opportunity to showcase their cheeky humour.



The bottomline: is best summed up by The Verge:


“...Facebook must contend with [the fact] that the lack of trust in WhatsApp is directly related to years of bad faith privacy pledges from Facebook and increasingly complex terms of service agreements no regular, non-lawyer user can reasonably comprehend… Now, Facebook and WhatsApp face a long road of transparent communication and trust-building ahead if they want to get those people back.”


Reading List

Bloomberg News and Indian Express offer a quick overview of the new rules. Mashable breaks down the company’s clarification in detail. The Verge lays out why Facebook’s latest controversy is well-deserved. Business Standard has a brief primer on end-to-end encryption. The Hindu has a good op-ed linking the controversy to lack of data protection laws in India. Also read: the privacy policy and clarification.


Sanity Break #1

A British restaurant owner Niraj Gadhera decided it will be good fun to attach a samosa to a weather balloon and send it into space—along with a GoPro and a GPS tracker. But the tracker malfunctioned, and he lost track of the AWOL samosa—until the balloon showed up in a field in France. However, there is no sign of the poor samosa. Here’s a very amusing 14-minute video of the entire saga. Totally worth a lunch break laugh.

Headlines that matter

Supreme Court issues a diktat

Court has suspended the three farm laws (explained here), and appointed a committee of four members. The problem: All four members have previously come out publicly in favour of the laws. The Hindu has more on each of them. 


The government: says it isn’t happy about suspension of the laws “but the direction of the apex court is ‘sarva-manya’ (acceptable to all). It also welcomed the composition of an “impartial” committee to resolve the deadlock.


The farmers: have refused to participate in any proceedings of the committee, dubbing it “a government ploy”—as made clear by its members’ views. None of the farmers’ lawyers showed up for the ruling. But they plan to hold their next meeting with the government as scheduled.


On women protesters: Chief Justice Bobde has flagged the presence of women, children and old people at the protest—and indicated the Court might issue an order insisting that they return home. But the unions see the concern as a ruse to make it easier for the police to crack down on the protesters. Also this: “As per the 2011 census, 98 million women in India have agricultural jobs, making them a stakeholder in the sector.” And going by this in-your-face interview, it doesn’t appear that the women are looking for protection:


The next flash point: Republic Day. Farmers plan to lead a tractor parade through Delhi—but after the official parade is done. The government has asked the Court to impose an injunction on any such protest which would “disturb and disrupt the august celebrations” and create a law and order situation.


Growing fears for US inauguration

House Democrats were briefed by law enforcement on three separate plots to overthrow the government. The most terrifying involves “insurrectionists forming a perimeter around the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, and then blocking Democrats from entering the Capitol—perhaps even killing them—so that Republicans could take control of the government.”


Trump responds: In his first public appearance since the siege, Trump defended his incitement of rioters, saying: “People thought that what I said was totally appropriate” He also brushed aside calls to remove him from office, issuing an implicit threat: ““As the expression goes, be careful of what you wish for.”


More clarifications on the vaccine rollout

The health ministry says that it has ordered 11 million doses of Serum Institute’s Covishield (the Oxford vaccine) and 5.5 million doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. The first stage will target 10 million healthcare workers and 20 million frontline public workers. The second stage will aim to immunise 270 million people above the age of 50 years and those with underlying health conditions. 


The big controversy: The government says that a person receiving the vaccine at this stage will not have the option to choose between the two vaccines—even though Covishield has proven efficacy data while Covaxin has not. And that is raising concern among doctors who will be among the first to receive the jab. 


Private sales: Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla said his vaccine will sell at Rs 1000, but he has not received permission to take it to the market. The government has indicated that it may not allow private sales until its campaign is over—which could “last maybe beyond one year”. 


Point to note: Serum right now has 50 million doses in stock and will produce 70-80 million a month. Yes, a significant chunk will be exported to poorer countries that are in great need. But Serum has already made clear that most of its vaccines will be sold in India. What puzzles us: Given the ready availability of vaccines in the country, why wait a year to offer them to private individuals—if the priority is to immunise everyone as quickly as possible?


In other pandemic-related news:

  • Japan has discovered a new variant that may be more infectious—like other recent strains identified in the UK and South Africa. This one has 12 mutations on its spike protein. 
  • Three Democratic members of Congress have tested positive thanks to the siege. Members of Congress were crowded into rooms with Republicans—many of whom refuse to wear a mask.
  • Gorillas at the San Diego Zoo have tested positive as well. This is the first known case of the virus infecting one of the great apes.
  • A new study reveals that a healthy gut may protect you from severe forms of Covid. It can help ensure that your body’s immune system does not go into overdrive—which often causes long haul symptoms. 
  • A new long haul symptom: ‘Covid hands’: “The condition involves peeling skin and fingernails that can turn purple.”


Elon Musk goes all ‘Made in India’

Tesla has registered a subsidiary company in Bangalore, but no one knows what that means—including Karnataka’s principal secretary for commerce & industries who said:


“We have been interacting with Tesla for the last few months and it is happy news that they have decided to incorporate their company here… How they want to enter and take it forward is left to their judgment. Hopefully, this will lead to sales office, research and further developments as necessary."


Indian cricket team ki dukhi kahani

The bio bubble created for the visiting team down under is less than desirable in Brisbane—the venue of their fourth test match. Among the complaints about their hotel accommodations: “Making the bed. Cleaning the toilet. No room service. Ordering food on apps. No access to the swimming pool.” Haw, but all this may be the Indian cricket authorities’ fault which wanted the team to fly home right after the match—with zero quarantine. But now the cricket board has intervened to ensure that the team can order in their khana, and never have to make their bed.


An offensive Chinese ad

PurCotton’s ad for makeup wipes is not winning a lot of fans. The reason: It shows “a woman walking home at night followed by a male stalker. As he gains on her, she removes her make-up using the wipes and transforms into a man, scaring off the would-be attacker.” The company has since pulled the ad and apologised for ‘victim blaming’. South China Morning Post has the story.


Robots can display empathy

A new study found that one robot learned to predict its partner robot’s actions based on just a few video frames—i.e. it made that prediction by putting itself in the shoes of the other robot. Researchers are calling this a “primitive form of empathy.” Also this: "We recognize that robots aren't going to remain passive instruction-following machines for long.” Cnet has the story. But this video makes this very nerdy discovery easier to understand:


Ayushmann has a ??? hair day

Bombay Times may insist that he is “pulling off the man bun look effortlessly.” But we’re kinda unsure...


Sanity Break #2

If you enjoy visual puns, then this series—titled Words Made of Atoms—by Brit artist duo John Wood and Paul Harrison (known as the Laurel & Hardy of the art world) is perfect for you. It’s all a bit weird, quirky and yet compelling. See the rest over at Fad Magazine. If this is up your alley, be sure to check out their performance art which is much more of the same.

Smart & Curious

A list of intriguing things

One: There is such a thing as ‘vagina moisturising melt’ and they claim to make your vagina smell and taste like food. Flavour options include: "Blueberry Bliss," "Heavenly Vanilla," and "Wild Cherry” and—wait for it—”Creamy Coconut”! Just in case you’re a bit too intrigued, Shape magazine explains why you really don’t want to be using anything that includes “organic flavor oil.” Related weirdness: Covid-inspired cakes including examples from Indian bakeries.


Two: Yes, we now have  Baby Yoda mithai.


Three: This invasive brown tree snake can turn its tail into a lasso to climb absolutely anything. Scientists are shocked and awed. Smithsonian magazine has more.


Four: Now there’s a fun way to learn how to hack your way into other people’s devices and networks. A team of Russian hackers have designed and mass-produced a powerful handheld hacking device that takes the form of an adorable virtual pet—a dolphin named Flipper Zero—you can play with by hacking into stuff. FYI: Flipper Zero evolves with interaction, and gets mad when you aren’t hacking stuff. And it holds left-wing political views, listens to techno, and has no pronounced gender identity.” Vice has more on this Byju-esque tool for white hat hackers. See alarmingly cheery promo video below:


Feel good place

One: Rakhi Sawant on Bigg Boss, courtesy Yashraj Mukhate (of ‘Rasode main kaun tha’ fame).


Two: Auditioning actors, kindly take note.


Three: Dog owners not WFH, kindly take note.


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