Reverse-engineering Whatsapp, to let us talk to our friends without Facebook's oversight

The lifecycle of technology is fundamentally parasitic: successful technologies are ones that colonize their predecessors, devour them, and burst out of their limiting skins to and grow into new, more ambitious tools — until they, too, are colonized by a more-evolved successor.

The first web browsers had very little web to browse, so they let you interact with Gopher, a text-based predecessor of the web; eventually, they supplanted and killed Gopher. The first Ipods had no music store, so they absorbed the MP3s you ripped from CDs, until they finally killed the format. The terminal program your computer comes with is running code that was originally designed to interact with "teletypes" — hulking keyboards connected to printers that predate the use of screens themselves. The code for these was wrapped in a layer of new code that let it talk to "glass teletypes" (the first screen-based terminals) and then subsequent layers let you create virtual glass teletypes inside graphic user interfaces.

This is especially true of communications technologies. Early internal messaging systems were retrofitted with awkward tools to let them talk to the internet's email protocols; eventually those messaging systems withered and died, or, at best, became ways to talk to the whole net, instead of just the people who happened to work for the same company as you, or subscribe to the same commercial service.

Messaging protocols — IRC, ICQ, AIM, MSN Messenger, etc — remorselessly interpenetrated each other, because users wanted to talk to one another, even if the proprietors of the services wanted to maintain a commercial advantage by locking their users in and their competitors out.

When social networks were invented, new services tried ingenious strategies to tempt users to greener pastures. For example, Facebook lured in Myspace users by giving them an autopilot tool that would scrape the messages waiting for them on Myspace and let them reply to them from Facebook, with a come-on inviting their Myspace contacts to switch to Facebook at the bottom of every message. It worked. Facebook burst the cell-walls of Myspace and its organelles spilled out, and Facebook absorbed its nutrients (that is, us).

Now it's Facebook's turn. When Facebook bought Whatsapp, it gave its founders a chance to cash out, and in exchange, it got the ability to surveil hundreds of millions of people, many of whom weren't living inside Facebook's walled garden, and even more of whom were on Facebook, but were conducting important parts of their lives outside of those walls.

Many of us have come to regret that moment. Whatsapp's founders are urging people to stop using Facebook products (including Whatsapp, which has many less-surveillant alternatives, like Signal).

Some of us are doing something about it. Sigalor, a software developer from Munich, has created a Github project to reverse-engineer Whatsapp's web interface, which will allow people to make new services that are bridged into Whatsapp's network, allow them to treat it as a piece of bootstrap material to create new services that will subsume and then replace it, as is natural and good.

We need lots of action to correct the Facebook problem: antitrust enforcement, privacy regulation, easy-to-grasp warnings about the risks of surveillance — but we also need tools that programmers can use to colonize Facebook from within and tear it into manageable pieces that can be tackled by businesses, regulators and users.

WhatsApp Web reverse engineered [sigalor/Github]

(Image: Deuterostome, CC-BY-SA)

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