Latest WhatsApp update lays bare private user data

WhatApp and Facebook logos.

Photo credit: AFP File

What you need to know:

  • In the incoming rules, Facebook also gives businesses that use WhatsApp more leverage than before.
  • There is also a new line under the provision for third-party banner ads, or the advertisements that run from other businesses when someone is using an app.

Less than a month from today, popular messaging platform WhatsApp will change its terms of service and users who disagree with the new policy will be locked out of the platform.

The terms currently in use have been in effect since July 2020, and they gave users the choice to opt in or out of some products. Some of those choices will be withdrawn in the rules to take effect from February 8.

For instance, users will be compelled to share user data with WhatsApp’s sister companies that include Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, Oculus and LiveRail.

WhatsApp’s sharing of data with other Facebook companies has been happening for some time now, but users have had a way out.

“After this date (February 8), you’ll need to accept the new terms to continue using WhatsApp,” says a message that sent to the messaging app’s users in Kenya and elsewhere on the world last week.

The collected data, Facebook says in reference to the incoming change of terms, will help the company in various ways including “to ensure security, safety, and integrity across the Facebook company products; and to improve ads and products experience across the Facebook company products”.

Also, the new set of rules will give Facebook a keener eye on what a WhatsApp user does.

“We analyse how you make use of WhatsApp in order to improve our services, including helping businesses who use WhatsApp measure the effectiveness and distribution of their services and messages,” they state.

The new rules also have a provision on Facebook disabling a WhatsApp account that stays dormant for too long. They also state that merely deleting an app does not erase the data a person had on WhatsApp.

“Be mindful that if you only delete WhatsApp from your device without using our in-app ‘delete my account’ feature, your information will be stored with us for a longer period,” says the incoming set of rules.

Interestingly, a paragraph in the existing terms of reference regarding data privacy is missing in the update of the terms of service.

The soon-to-be-discarded line says: “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA. Since we started WhatsApp, we’ve aspired to build our services with a set of strong privacy principles in mind.”

In the same document, however, WhatsApp insists that messages exchanged on the platform are encrypted end-to-end, which means that neither they nor a third party can see their content.

In the section on third-party services, WhatsApp says: “Our services may allow you to access, use, or interact with third-party websites, apps, content, other products and services, and Facebook company products.”

The words “and Facebook company products” are not in the existing terms of reference.

There is also a new line under the provision for third-party banner ads, or the advertisements that run from other businesses when someone is using an app.

“We still do not allow third-party banner ads on our services. We have no intention to introduce them, but if we ever do, we will update this privacy policy,” it says.

The words starting from “but” are a new addition, and it sounds like a subtle communication from Facebook that it might introduce advertisements in future.

In the incoming rules, Facebook also gives businesses that use WhatsApp more leverage than before.

“Businesses you interact with using our services may provide us with information about their interactions with you. We require each of these businesses to act in accordance with applicable law when providing any information to us,” a newly introduced paragraph reads.

The planned changes have caused outrage throughout the world, with a number of people including the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, posting last week that users should embrace Signal, a WhatsApp rival.

Reports say that after Mr Musk’s tweet, there was a frenzy of installation and registration of Signal.

WhatsApp, on the other hand, has been firefighting. In responses it has given to various media outlets, it has been arguing for its action.

It told London’s The Independent that such policy revision are common in the industry and that it has given users ample time to review them.

Because European Union countries have strict rules regarding operations of social media use, WhatsApp’s incoming changes that involve sharing of data with other Facebook companies will not apply there.

“It is still the case that 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 Facebook spokesperson told The Independent.

Also, the technology company told The Verge that the rules update is aimed at telling businesses that they can “choose to receive secure hosting services from our parent company Facebook to help manage their communications with their customers on WhatsApp”.

Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion. Its co-founder Jan Koum stepped down as the firm’s chief executive in 2018 over what was said to be disagreements on the privacy of users’ data in the platform.

WhatsApp has an estimated 2.5 billion users worldwide, making it the most popular in its league. It has recently ventured into cash transfer, which is also covered in the incoming rules.

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