WhatsApp privacy backlash: Facebook angers users by harvesting their data
Dan Tynan in San Francisco – Thu 25 Aug 2016 22.30 BST Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 17.28 BST
Facebook is being accused of backtracking on its pledge not to use the data of the 1 billion users of the WhatsApp messaging app it acquired two years ago
Stop us if you’ve heard this one: Facebook rolls out a new feature and/or acquires a new company, vowing to protect the privacy of its users’ personal information with its last dying breath. A year or two later, it backtracks and decides it wants spin your data into gold after all – and if users don’t like it, they can delete their accounts.
And so it is with today’s news about WhatsApp, the messaging service acquired by the world’s most unavoidable social network in February 2014. In a blogpost, WhatsApp announced it would begin sharing names and phone numbers with its parent company, to allow its more than 1 billion users “to communicate with businesses that matter to you too” – like notifications from airlines, delivery services or your bank, for example.
Facebook will also use that data to make friend suggestions and combine that data with the reams of information it has already collected so that it can tailor ads even more specifically to your interests.
Facebook did not want to comment on the change.
The reaction was nothing if not predictable. Tech news site Gizmodo sums up the feeling of many tech observers: “The sentiment that WhatsApp is an app that protects and cares for your privacy is no longer a reality. It was nice while it lasted.”
Some used Reddit to voice their disappointment, like Redditor Rakajj: “WhatsApp just lost a user. Was just a matter of time once the FB acquisition went through. Guess it’s time to finally give Telegram a whirl.”
And there was the inevitable tweet stream:
Yet the backlash runs deeper than a few angry tweets.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic), says that by going back on its agreement to keep WhatsApp data private, Facebook is violating an agreement reached with the FTC in 2012.
The agency’s final order requires the social network to obtain its users consent before changing settings that affect the privacy of their information. “The FTC has to act,” Rotenberg says. “It’s absurd that a company can disregard a legal judgement.”
Facebook has a long history of changing its policies in a way that puts the company’s needs ahead of its users’ and kicks the internet outrage engine into full gear.
In November 2007 the social network launched Beacon, a way to capture information about what people did on third-party sites, publishing things like the games they were playing or their recent purchases on their newsfeeds. Howls of protest and a class action suit ensued; Facebook immediately scaled back the Beacon program and then quietly killed it two years later.
In December 2009, Facebook unilaterally made some information that had been private by default, like friends lists, publicly available without warning anyone. It also shared private information with third-party apps, while claiming to do the opposite. These and other offenses earned the social network sanctions from the FTC and 20 years of third-party privacy audits.
In early 2012, Facebook performed an ad hoc psychology experiment on nearly 700,000 users to see if it could manipulate their emotions by flooding their newsfeeds with either positive or negative posts – again, without informing anyone. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC, and Facebook eventually apologized.
Those are just the greatest hits.
What does Facebook get from annoying its users yet again? If you use WhatsApp to communicate with your airline, bank, delivery service or customer service department at virtually any other establishment, Facebook will know that too – and, at some point in the future, presumably add all those nuggets of potentially monetizable information to your ever expanding yet-strangely perverse advertising profile.
If that’s too much for you, you have 30 days to opt out of data sharing. (WhatsApp offers instructions here, though these steps weren’t available on my iPhone app at press time.) You can switch to a more private messaging service, like Telegram or Signal, which doesn’t rely on an advertising-based business model. Or you can keep calm and carry on using WhatsApp and Facebook – at least, until the next outrage arises.