'There's no such thing as a free app' - boss of WhatsApp rival
Free apps and social networks are exchanging their services for increasing amounts of personal data - and the average user has no idea.
That stark claim is the central motivation behind a new UK messaging service, YEO, which stands for 'Your Eye Only' and aims to bring privacy back to our online lives.
Facebook, the most high-profile of all social media platforms, has been under intense scrutiny since it emerged early last year that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of its members’ profiles without their consent.
"[The word] 'Delete' does not exist in Facebook's vocabulary, I can tell you that for sure,” CEO Alan Jones claimed in an interview with BusinessCloud.
“I've been extremely alarmed by the way data is being used and how it can not only corrupt lives but lead to a loss of life from misuse.
“Free apps harvest data and then sell that data to Facebook for them to commercialise even further.
“It's impossible to maintain the service without somehow commercialising on that data that you are harvesting.”
The YEO app has a set of security features unlike those seen in the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
The most immediate difference is continuous facial recognition. The app stays open only for as long as the user’s face, and only their face, is in view of the device’s camera.
“You can never see it unless it's the actual recipient. It encrypts the data channel and only decrypts based on facial recognition," explained Jones.
Senders can also stipulate where the message is read, for example only inside or outside of the recipient’s workplace.
The CEO says he is on a mission to better educate users to the subtle technical difference between ‘sharing’ and ‘publishing’.
“As humans, we need to understand how the internet is being used to commercially drive advertising and what that actually means to us on an everyday level,” he explained.
“When we share, we have control. When we go on a social media platform like Facebook, we publish. We relinquish control.”
Facebook has announced plans to share data from WhatsApp and Instagram, which it owns, with the lead platform to target adverts at users.
Earlier this month Germany banned it from doing so and also instructed it to stop taking data from third-party apps and combining it with its own for the same purpose.
“Mark Zuckerburg has been our biggest advertising medium. He's continued to fail the user base," claimed Jones.
“And it isn't just Facebook: Google is the same. There are several other companies capitalising on data harvesting.”
Despite a long professional history in tech and cyber security, Jones’ decision to create the app was made after seeing his children freely share images through these platforms.
He says his first idea - long before the launch of social media platform Snapchat - was to create an app which allowed photos to be shared for a limited few seconds before being destroyed. However he was involved in another business at the time and so this idea never came to fruition.
Now Jones and his daughter, co-founder and CMO Sarah Norford-Jones, are championing data privacy together with London-based YEO.
Because the app forgoes the standard data-harvesting revenue streams, it instead offers a free 30-day trial before charging a monthly fee of £1.99.
Asked if the price would be off-putting to users who expect free services, Jones says the cost has been carefully considered.
“Do we really think nothing of our privacy?" he asked. "Are we willing to pay less than the price of a cup of coffee for privacy?
“It means that you're not being continuously profiled, and your closest secrets are not sitting in a database ready to be commercialised.
“With YEO, at all stages you control what's being sent and who sees it, where they see it and for how long they see it.
“It is very powerful for the sender to be able to dictate those terms. It's messaging 'on your terms'.”
The company now hopes to establish the app as a leading provider of privacy-based messaging, drive the product’s desktop version and enter the FinTech and medtech markets.
Jones said it is also eyeing a move into voice messaging, with the same key security features.