Facebook harvests info via WhatsApp

Last Updated on 2 weeks by News Admin

Profiting off users for years

Since Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, users have been concerned over their personal information being shared between the two platforms.

Users of the instant messaging app are alarmed, as a new in-app notification issued recently raises awareness about a step WhatsApp actually took to share more with Facebook back in 2016.

WhatsApp updated its terms of use and privacy policy, primarily to expand on its practices around how WhatsApp business users can store their communications. A pop-up has been notifying users that as of February 8, the app’s privacy policy will change and they must accept the terms to keep using the app.

As part of that privacy policy refresh, WhatsApp also removed a passage about opting out of sharing certain data with Facebook: “If you are an existing user, you can choose not to have your WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook to improve your Facebook ads and products experiences.”

Media outlets as well as concerned and confused WhatsApp users wonder if this means WhatsApp has finally crossed a line, requiring data-sharing with no alternative. But in fact the company says that the privacy policy deletion simply reflects how WhatsApp has shared data with Facebook since 2016 for the vast majority of its now over two billions users.

When WhatsApp launched a major update to its privacy policy in August 2016, it started sharing user information and metadata with Facebook. At that time, the messaging service offered its billion existing users 30 days to opt out of at least some of the sharing. If you chose to opt out at the time, WhatsApp will continue to honour that choice. The feature is long gone from the app settings, but you can check whether you’re opted out through the “Request account info” function in Settings.

According to an article in Wired.com, the billion-plus users WhatsApp has added since 2016, along with anyone who missed that opt-out window, have had their data shared with Facebook all this time. WhatsApp emphasised that this week’s privacy policy changes do not actually impact WhatsApp’s existing practices or behaviour around sharing data with Facebook.

“Our updated Terms and Privacy Policy provide more information on how we process your data, and our commitment to privacy,” WhatsApp stated.

“As part of the Facebook Companies, WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer experiences and integrations across Facebook’s family of apps and products,” the statement continued.

None of this has at any point impacted WhatsApp’s marquee feature: end-to-end encryption. Messages, photos, and other content you send and receive on WhatsApp can only be viewed on your smartphone and the devices of the people you choose to message with.

WhatsApp and Facebook itself can’t access your communications. In fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to expanding end-to-end encryption offerings as part of tying the company’s different communication platforms together.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a trove of other data WhatsApp can collect and share about how you use the app. The company says it collects user information “to operate, provide, improve, understand, customise, support, and market our Services.”

End-to-end encryption

In practice, this means that WhatsApp shares a lot of intel with Facebook, including account information like your phone number, logs of how long and how often you use WhatsApp, information about how you interact with other users, device identifiers, and other device details like IP address, operating system, browser details, battery health information, app version, mobile network, language and time zone. Transaction and payment data, cookies, and location information are also all fair game to share with Facebook depending on the permissions you grant WhatsApp in the first place.

“WhatsApp is great for protecting the privacy of your message content,” says Johns Hopkins University cryptographer Matthew Green. “But it feels like the privacy of everything else you do is up for grabs.”

Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014 and noted at the time that it and the company’s chat platform Messenger would operate as “standalone” products.

The slow shift toward integration has been controversial internally, and may have contributed to the departure in late 2017 and 2018, respectively, of WhatsApp co-founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum.

A few months after leaving, Acton co-founded the non-profit Signal Foundation. The organisation maintains and develops the open source Signal Protocol, which WhatsApp and the secure messaging app Signal, among others, use to implement end-to-end encryption.

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