We need to talk about WhatsApp. When the little green speech bubble first showed up in my life, I greeted it with awe and wonder. I even wrote a little love letter to its ability to connect with a virtual black sisterhood – the kind that rarely exists in our too-undiverse workplaces in real life – in my first book. It became the perfect platform to share experiences, frustrations, strategies and ideas.
WhatsApp group communities proliferated on my phone – they were education, community and activism all in one place. It was great.
Until it wasn’t. Groups grow too big, don’t they? Then personalities clashed, unleashed from the restraint of real life by the notorious rudeness of social media.
Then a WhatsApp safe space was shattered, as one group member leaked confidential material shared by another, showing it to their boss to gain favour at work. The mutual trust and community that took years to build was poisoned in an instant, and so was someone’s career.
These perils took on an entirely new dimension last week in the case of Robyn Williams, the police superintendent prosecuted for the crime of having received a WhatsApp message that contained indecent images of a child.
Williams’ case is shocking because her sister sent her the clip not to gain any gratification from child abuse but to condemn it, and to call for the perpetrator to be caught and punished. The court accepted that neither had any sinister intent, and Williams never actually watched the video.
Williams was a highly decorated officer who had been given an award by the Queen, had supported Grenfell Tower survivors, and was tipped to be a future Scotland Yard commissioner. Yet her reputation counted for nothing next to the offence of receiving an unopened WhatsApp message. Now she is a convicted sex offender and her career is in ruins.
A petition supporting Williams has gathered thousands of signatures, and even a former director of public prosecutions has expressed disbelief that she was prosecuted in the first place for not keeping up with her WhatsApp thread.
I don’t keep up with my WhatsApp threads. Perhaps that’s now a self-incriminating statement. But the thought that something for which I could be prosecuted is lurking in there, is perhaps the only thing more stressful than many unopened messages I have in the first place.
How did the platform that seemed like a friend turn into a potential career assassin? The answer is less to do with WhatsApp and more to do with the failure of data regulation.
In England, cases have already established that messages sent – we think privately – on WhatsApp can be subject to disclosure during legal proceedings. Even a group of highly skilled hackers were not able to prevent their WhatsApp chats being used as evidence when they broke a clause in their employment contract. In India, the government says it has the right to intercept WhatsApp, with a warning that social media can threaten “disruption” to democracy. Turkey says it is legal to read employee messages to see if competition law is being broken. An Israeli company, NSO, is being sued by WhatsApp, which claims its surveillance technology was used in a series of highly sophisticated cyber-attacks that violated American law in an “unmistakable pattern of abuse” – allegations the company denies and has vowed to fight vigorously in court.
NSO technology is alleged to have targeted the phones of journalists, human rights campaigners and women’s rights activists in 20 countries. I consider myself all three: no wonder I’m nervous. All these jurisdictions fail to grasp that legislation has to keep up with our everyday use of data. How many of us know that things said on WhatsApp could be used as evidence in litigation?
I will never know what’s in all my unread WhatsApp messages. But I do know that if the law is meant to provide us with certainty, and keep us safe, then something has gone badly wrong.
• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist