WhatsApp Microphone Controversy: Bug or Privacy Breach?

Does WhatsApp truly listen to private conversations that may occur in a user's bedroom?

The use of microphones by WhatsApp has been the subject of serious allegations, including during times when users are asleep. Notable figures such as Elon Musk and Indian IT Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar have expressed worries about the messaging application, with Musk even stating that WhatsApp is untrustworthy.

The IT Minister has launched an investigation into the allegations made on Twitter. However, it remains uncertain whether the app is truly listening to user conversations.

WhatsApp has access to several crucial privacy components on smartphones. By granting all permissions, users provide the app with access to their camera, contacts, location, microphone, photos and videos, call logs, nearby devices, and even SMS. This extensive access raises concerns about the potential impact on user privacy if a breach were to occur.

Foad Dabiri, a Twitter engineer, shared a log of microphone usage that showed WhatsApp recording audio both when the user was awake and asleep. Dabiri expressed surprise at the app's behavior, stating, "WhatsApp has been using the microphone in the background while I was asleep and since I woke up at 6 AM (and that's just a part of the timeline!) What's going on?"

Elon Musk retweeted Dabiri's tweet, urging users not to trust the app. Musk's tweet brought attention to the issue and generated further interest in the matter.

According to WhatsApp's response, the answer is a definite no. The company, which is owned by Meta, asserts that the issue lies with the Pixel phone on which the app was running. In a tweet, WhatsApp explains that the problem is with the privacy dashboard, which is incorrectly attributing the microphone usage to the messaging app.

The tweet states, "Over the last 24 hours we've been in touch with a Twitter engineer who posted an issue with his Pixel phone and WhatsApp. We believe this is a bug on Android that mis-attributes information in their Privacy Dashboard and have asked Google to investigate and remediate."

WhatsApp assures users that they have complete control over their microphone settings. The app asserts that it only accesses the microphone when the user grants permission and when making a call or recording a voice note or video. Additionally, the app claims that all such communications are protected by end-to-end encryption, which means that neither WhatsApp nor Meta can hear them.

Shivnath Thukral, Meta's Director and Head of India Public Policy, also commented on the issue. He stated, "We believe this is a bug on Android, and Google has said they are looking into it. Your calls and voice notes are protected by end-to-end encryption, so we cannot hear the microphone in any case."

An Indian user of the Pixel 7 Pro phone also confirmed the bug. Sachin Tandon claimed that his Pixel 7 Pro was misattributing audio usage to Amazon, while he believed that WhatsApp was actually using the microphone. According to Tandon, the privacy dashboard continued to show that Amazon Shopping was using his microphone, even though he was not using that application at the time.

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