WhatsApp begins sharing user data with Facebook

Man holding phone with WhatsApp open

On August 25th, WhatsApp announced a very big change to their privacy policy. In a blog post on their website, the messaging giant said that they will begin sharing user data with the “Facebook family of companies.” As of August 29th, the change has officially rolled out to millions of users across the globe.

For those not in the know – Facebook acquired WhatsApp back in 2014 but hasn’t touched the Terms of Service until now. Although the blog post goes on to explain that the policy change will allow for better analytics and delivery of more relevant ads, some very important questions remain unanswered.

At the time of the acquisition, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum claimed that the service would remain the same. He wrote that “there would have been no partnership between our two companies if we had to compromise on the core principles that will always define our company, our vision and our product.”

Just a few years after this statement, WhatsApp seems to be ditching at least one of those principles, and it happens to be a big one – privacy.

Privacy concerns

While there’s not doubt that Facebook will use WhatsApp data to feed you better ads, the policy change raises many deeper privacy concerns.

For starters, the company’s choice of language regarding the sharing of data with the “Facebook family of companies” suggests that WhatsApp data can (and probably will) be fed to other Facebook-owned companies like Oculus, Instagram, Atlas, and half a dozen others.

It’s no secret that Facebook is a data-mining company, but this policy really helps put that into perspective. For example, the T&C change will allow Facebook to pull a user’s phone number from WhatsApp, and potentially feed it to Atlas – their “people-based” marketing company. Obviously we have no way of knowing if that will actually happen, but the point is – it would be totally “fine” under the new guidelines.

Although Facebook has been in the business of monetizing their offering by serving ads, WhatsApp had an entirely different business model. You might remember that in the early days of the app, users had to pay a small yearly fee for an ad-free service. The subscription model was ditched earlier this year, but a new monetization strategy hasn’t been implemented. That’s likely where the new policy comes in.

Partial opt-out

Another big issue with the T&C change is the way that it was executed. Although there is a way to partially opt-out of sharing some of your data, the new update doesn’t make it easy.

The update screen is very vague, and aside from outlining that the privacy policy has changed there is no further information outside of that. Granted, there is a link to read the terms and conditions, but it’s overshadowed by the giant “AGREE” button smack centre of the screen.

By tapping the “read more” chevron, users will find the summary of the key updates, and at the very bottom will be given an option to uncheck the box next to “Share my WhatsApp information with Facebook…”

There are two major issues here, first – WhatsApp decided to make the policy change an “opt-out” option versus an “opt-in.” Second – the “opt-out” checkbox is out of sight, so most users will never actually see it and instinctively click “Agree” just to get back to their chats.

If you’re one of the people that hit “Accept” without reading the T&C, you can still opt-out by following the tutorial on the EFF website. That said, regardless of whether or not you chose to opt out, some WhatsApp data will still be passed to Facebook for purposes such as “improving infrastructure and delivery systems.”

 

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