Tackling spam in the era of end-to-end encryption: A case study of WhatsApp

Pushkal Agarwal, Aravindh Raman, Kiran Garimella, Damilola Ibosiola, Gareth Tyson, Nishanth Sastry

WhatsApp is a popular messaging app used by over a billion users around the globe. Due to this popularity, spam on WhatsApp is an important issue. Despite this, the distribution of spam via WhatsApp remains understudied by researchers, in part because of the end-to-end encryption offered by the platform. This paper addresses this gap by studying spam on a dataset of 2.6 million messages sent to 5,051 public WhatsApp groups in India over 300 days. First, we characterise spam content shared within public groups and find that nearly 1 in 10 messages is spam. We observe a wide selection of topics ranging from job ads to adult content, and find that spammers post both URLs and phone numbers to promote material. Second, we inspect the nature of spammers themselves. We find that spam is often disseminated by groups of phone numbers, and that spam messages are generally shared for longer duration than non-spam messages. Finally, we devise content and activity based detection algorithms that can counter spam.

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