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WhatsApp’s privacy policy explained: Why messaging app’s users are porting to Signal, Telegram

WhatsApp’s new terms of service and privacy policies, which were updated earlier this week, are causing a migration of the messaging application’s user base to more privacy-oriented options such as Signal. Some are even mulling moving to Telegram. Acceptance of the new policies, which users are being alerted to via in-app notifications, is mandatory, failing which users would lose access to WhatsApp from February 8, 2021. The new policies allow for a closer integration of WhatsApp into the larger Facebook ecosystem and group of companies. It is worth noting that WhatsApp’s users in the European Union are exempted from the sharing their data with Facebook (more on this below).

Multiple users on social media platforms, including Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, have called for the use of apps such as Signal. Signal, in fact, experienced a temporary slowdown, with users unable to get verification codes due to the sudden surge in sign-ups. At the time of publishing this story, both Telegram and Signal were among trending topics on Twitter.

What exactly do WhatsApp’s policies mean?

The new policies are largely expanded and better-explained versions of their existing conditions, albeit with some additions. The most notable addition includes WhatsApp’s integration into the Facebook family of products, which include the in-house Messenger app and Instagram.

  • More data-sharing with Facebook: Currently, WhatsApp shares a huge amount of information to Facebook and other companies in the family. This includes your account registration information — including your phone number and IP address. But this is not all. WhatsApp can share also share any information identified in its Privacy Policy’s “Information We Collect” section.
    • 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 over 400 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.

In an earnings call with investors held in October 2020, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had said that private messaging was a major priority for the company. Only recently, Instagram and Messenger were integrated with a “cross-messaging” feature, and WhatsApp is next in line, according to Zuckerberg. All three apps, he had said, would “function a little bit more like one connected interoperable system”. 

WhatsApp’s Chief Operating Officer Matt Idema had recently elucidated this approach, when he 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. Readers should note that WhatsApp already offer the UPI-based WhatsApp Pay in India. In addition, WhatsApp’s business accounts will also help achieve this objective.

Is this the first time data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook has happened?

No, data has been shared between WhatsApp and Facebook for many years now. In fact, Facebook had promised regulators during the acquisition that it would not use any of WhatsApp’s data.

  • 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 ordered Facebook 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.

What are the alternatives?

Users are currently migrating to Signal and Telegram. Signal is developed by the Signal Foundation, a non-profit. It is open-source and end-to-end encryption is enabled by default. Meanwhile, Telegram does support end-to-end encrypted messages, but users have to enable the feature themselves. Either way, these options will make practical sense to most people only if there is mass adoption, which will allow it to compete with WhatsApp’s ubiquity.

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