Beware of whatsapp - new policy changes will intrude privacy
The “Information We Collect” section is quite huge: It contains both information provided to WhatsApp directly by users, and that which is collected by the app itself. User-supplied information includes phone numbers, profile picture, content in the “about” section, individual users’ address books, status updates, transaction and payment data (wherever WhatsApp offers such services) and so on. Information collected by WhatsApp includes device-level data such as IP address, ISP and identifiers (including those unique to Facebook products on the same account. In essence, with this data, Facebook would theoretically be able to triangulate users who are on Facebook, WhatsApp and/or Instagram.
Business messaging data could go to Facebook: Messages to business accounts on WhatsApp can now be shared with third-party service providers, which may include Facebook itself. For example, Facebook (as the third-party service provider) could store, read and “manage” messages sent to businesses by users.
But what does this data sharing portend?
Since its acquisition in 2014, when it was bought by Facebook for the eye-watering price of $19 billion, WhatsApp has largely not been monetised. However, Facebook has been showing considerable interest in tapping into WhatsApp’s considerably global user base (In India alone, the app has over400 million users). A free flow of data between each app would theoretically allow the company to understand user preferences and profile, helping them improve their ad targeting algorithms.
WhatsApp’s Chief Operating Officer had recently elucidated this approach and was quoted in a Bloomberg report as saying that “Instagram and Facebook are the storefront. WhatsApp is the cash register”. Essentially, users would find advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, leading to an interaction or sale, which would be facilitated through WhatsApp.
In 2017, the company was fined $110 million by the European Commission after it was found reneging on this promise. Facebook told the EC that it would not use WhatsApp data to match user accounts to Facebook, but this is exactly what it did.
Around the same time, France ordered Facebook to stop collecting WhatsApp users’ data without consent.
In 2019, Germany’s competition regulator orderedFacebook to stop collecting its users’ data from Instagram and WhatsApp without consent.
WhatsApp acquisition is under the lens of the United States federal and state governments, which have accused Facebook to buying the company for the sole purpose of stifling competition in the private messaging market. Facebook is the subject of two anti-trust lawsuits, which note that Facebook took “active steps” to use WhatsApp data despite “disavowing any such plans at the time of the acquisition”.
Is the data-sharing arrangement just for India, or global?
The policies are global, but they won’t be applicable everywhere. For instance, WhatsApp has told the Irish Times that the new data-sharing agreement will not hold true in the European Union. “WhatsApp does not share European region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or advertisements,” a spokesperson told Irish Times on Thursday.
Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp’s director of policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, confirmed this in a series of tweets. “There are no changes to WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices in the Europe arising from this update. It remains the case that WhatsApp does not share European Region WhatsApp user data with Facebook […],” she said.
WhatsApp’s (non)implementation of this policy in the European Union is likely the result of stricter regulations and laws surrounding data protection. For instance, Facebook’s ability to transfer any of its EU users’ data to the United States has been questioned by European regulators.
So, do Indian users have any options?
No. In India, if one wishes to continue using WhatsApp, they have to agree to WhatsApp’s new terms. Also, India doesn’t yet have a law for personal data, though one is currently being considered by a Joint Parliamentary Committee, which is expected to submit its report this year. With no law in place, and no regulatory oversight so far, Indian users don’t really have an option. more