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WhatsApp: “Secure” Messaging vs. Facebook Data Collection

In January 2021, WhatsApp made waves with a new announcement regarding its Privacy Policy. Despite widespread pushback, the app is continuing with the new Privacy Policy, further undermining the privacy of its users.

The Relationship Between Facebook and WhatsApp

While WhatsApp is currently owned by Facebook, it began as an independent startup. In 2016, WhatsApp incorporated end-to-end encryption. By eliminating the server’s ability to read a user’s messages, WhatsApp increased the privacy of their users on the platform.

In 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp, and its creators continued working on WhatsApp. However, WhatsApp’s founders and Facebook executives did not see eye to eye. In 2018, both of WhatsApp’s creators left Facebook over long-standing disagreements on how Facebook planned to monetize WhatsApp.

As a “free” tech company, Facebook’s business model is based upon monetizing its users. The vast amount of information that people share on Facebook enables the company to build extremely detailed profiles of its users. The company’s revenue comes from selling targeting advertising, where companies can pay to place their ads in front of the customers most likely to click and buy.

The WhatsApp Privacy Rollback

In January 2021, WhatsApp announced a planned update to its Privacy Policy. This update included a provision stating that, effective February 8th, user data from WhatsApp would now be shared with Facebook, its parent company. If users refused to accept the new terms, they would no longer be able to use WhatsApp.

The backlash against this decision was overwhelming. Many high-profile figures – including Elon Musk – publicly stated that WhatsApp users should switch to Signal. As a result, Signal’s registration system crashed as WhatsApp users attempted to move over to the privacy-focused secure communications app.

Based on the extreme negative response, WhatsApp decided not to launch its new Privacy Policy on February 8th. However, this is a delay, not a cancellation. While the policy will be available from February 8th, WhatsApp users will not be forced to accept it or leave the app until May 15.

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Implications of the WhatsApp Privacy Update

The new WhatsApp Privacy Policy inspired massive backlash because users objected to WhatsApp sharing their data from Facebook. However, this 2021 Privacy Policy update isn’t actually a major change, contrary to what users believe.

It’s absolutely true that WhatsApp plans to share all of its data with Facebook. However, most data has been shared since 2016 anyway.

In 2016, an updated Privacy Policy gave users the option to opt-into or out of having their data shared with Facebook for targeting advertising and to improve product experiences. This gave users the choice of whether or not their data could be used in this way but not to block sharing. Since 2016, all new WhatsApp users are automatically opted-in with no option to remove consent.

Under the new 2021 Privacy Policy, Facebook plans to continue this practice of sharing user data between its different platforms. However, while much of this data was shared previously, the new Policy has a few significant differences:

• Increased Data Sharing: Previously, WhatsApp users’ account information was shared with Facebook. Now, as Facebook integrates Facebook Shops into WhatsApp, data about users’ interaction with Facebook Shops will be shared with Facebook and Instagram as well.

● Data Monetization: The 2016 Privacy Policy was phrased in a misleading way. It allowed users to opt-out of having their data be shared and used for targeted advertising (but not out of having it shared at all). The new 2021 Privacy Policy eliminates that right to opt-out of data monetization.

● All or Nothing Access: The new WhatsApp Privacy Policy is different in that it forces users to allow monetization of their data or leave the app entirely. This is a new tactic and is actually illegal in the EU under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

● Data Retention: Facebook is currently facing anti-trust lawsuits that may force the breakup of its mergers with WhatsApp and Instagram. Pooling all user data before this occurs may give all three companies access to that data if the lawsuit succeeds in reversing the mergers.

Maintaining Privacy on Messaging Apps

WhatsApp’s move to share even more user data with Facebook demonstrates that - under the Facebook umbrella - the focus of the company is not on user privacy. Despite the fact that WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, the company could still access user messages within the apps (before encryption or after decryption) if it chooses to do so.

Facebook clearly does not put user privacy first, but it is not impossible to find truly secure and privacy communications apps. Ciphr is a secure messaging app that puts privacy in the hands of the user. By minimizing data collection and keeping control of encryption keys in the user’s hands, Ciphr demonstrates a commitment to user privacy and security that stands in stark contrast to WhatsApp.

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