By now, it’s probably no longer news that three unofficial WhatsApp clones — also known as “WhatsApp mods” or “modded WhatsApp versions” — are among the top 10 most-used apps in Africa, and that one of those three modified versions of WhatsApp, GBWhatsApp, is, in fact, the second-most used social messaging app in Africa, used even more than the Facebook app and only behind WhatsApps’s official version.
Or, maybe it’s still news to some people. Either way, that’s the situation. WhatsApp’s status as the most-used app in Africa is undisputed but maybe it’s popularity has also been unwittingly underreported.
Quite recently, Quartz Africa reported that Caribou Data, an analytics and insights firm, analysed 230 million distinct app sessions from users across South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya (Africa’s three hottest mobile phone markets).
The firm tracked anonymously logged data from user’s phones (with their permission) to determine which were the most-used apps among a vast sample base of 15,000 tracked apps. And three different WhatsApp mod versions were among the ten most-used messaging apps.
Like, it would take some insane level of popularity and fame for, say, an A-list celebrity to make mere copycats and minions of that celebrity even more popular than other fellow A-listers. Now, let that sink in.
“Normal WhatsApp is boring” is a common quip used by unrepentant and unapologetic users of modded WhatsApp versions who go after every new WhatsApp mod like junkies who are hooked on some sort of high they can’t help themselves from.
“I prefer GBWhatsApp because it’s more fun to use and has so many cool features that WhatsApp doesn’t have. To me, regular WhatsApp can be very boring and depressing,” Emmanuel Akachukwu, a periodic WhatsApp mod user tells WeeTracker.
When asked about the possibility of unknowingly trading off his privacy and security for a few “cool features,” he shrugged and said with indifference in Nigerian Pidgin, “Who privacy help?”
Like Emmanuel, many WhatsApp mod users couldn’t care less about user data privacy even if they tried. But maybe they should care more.
Yes, WhatsApp has a history of slow-paced innovation, which is oddly its winning formula, and the lure of cooler features on GBWhatsApp, YoWhatsApp, FMWhatsApp, and the likes might be hard to pass up on.
But the offer of privacy-focused tweaks that allow users to hide their online status, customisation options that allow users to change the look of the app, useful tweaks such as sending and receiving large files (up to 50 MB) and operating multiple accounts, and a feature that enables users see deleted texts, is certainly not enough for anybody to risk putting their sensitive data in the wrong hands. Nothing is.
WhatsApp mods are created by third-party developers. They are either directly shared from one device to another or downloaded from sources outside official app stores. Obviously, they are not available on the major app stores like Google’s Play Store and Apple’s AppStore.
The official WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, says “unofficial” versions of the app violate its terms of service and are “unsupported” because their security practices cannot be validated. WhatsApp has even attempted to ban such apps.
WhatsApp also warns that WhatsApp mod users can be banned from using the official app, which is why WhatsApp mod developers advise users not to register with their primary phone numbers in order to avoid the risk of a ban. But many users still don’t heed.
Indeed, developers of modded versions of WhatsApp are kind of open about the risks of using their WhatsApp versions.
For instance, GB WhatsApp warns that the app “is not safe for fair usage.” It also says that users risk malware attacks when they download the app from other numerous copycat sites. But that is hardly the full story.
WeeTracker spoke to some developers who are familiar with the engineering of social messaging platforms and they were unanimous on at least one thing: WhatsApp mods are dangerous.
“First, I’ll like to say the official WhatsApp is completely against the usage of GBWhatsApp not only because it opposes the copyright power of WhatsApp, and it stands against a lot of the things WhatsApp stands for,” says Sultan Akintunde, a Consonance Club Developer who is building DevCareers — a nonprofit tech institution that recently got financial support from Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey.
As he told WeeTracker, “The app is like a model version of WhatsApp that’s able to interact with the official WhatsApp system. But there’s a lot of security risk with services like this.
“Apart from the fact that accounts who run on GBWhatsapp could probably face easy penetration shots from hackers, messages and data across this network might not be as well encrypted as the app allows users to think,” he adds.
Usman Abiola, Product Design Manager at Smile Identity/co-founder of StartupPlug, formerly of Flutterwave, said data privacy must be of the least concern to people who use WhatsApp mods.
As he puts it, “People who use those apps don’t care about their data. So, they are very open to hacks in the slightest, as well as exposed chat history, compromised phone number, forged two-factor-authentication, the works. Hackers can even change their messages.”
But according to Shalvah Adebayo, a Senior Software Engineer at Deimos, while WhatsApp mods are very, very risky to use, the official WhatsApp is just “less risky” as things can actually go wrong anywhere.
“GBWhatsApp isn’t WhatsApp. I don’t know the agreement they have with their users, but by using their app, you’re implicitly placing your faith in them. You’re believing that they won’t broadcast your messages to the whole world. (And that’s why terms and conditions exist.) To be fair, the same thing can happen if you’re using WhatsApp,” says Adebayo.
“Most ‘hacking’ is either small-scale social engineering or automated exploits of known vulnerabilities. I’d say that that can happen on either app, depending on their (and the user’s) security practices.”
Finally, Ikechi Michael, a Senior Consultant at Andela Nigeria, explained that there is no indication that WhatsApp mods use end-to-end encryption like the official WhatsApp and this could be a huge problem.
“WhatsApp mods can steal your data and chats and images for their usage and may call you with fake money invitation and much more. The apps look similar but in some modded apps, there is always something fishy. You will not find any negative reviews of the app because people got what they wanted,” he explained.
Featured Image Courtesy: The Economist