WhatsApp Updates Privacy Policy, Shares Data with Facebook

When Facebook bought the popular free messaging service WhatsApp, it promised it wouldn’t change the privacy policies. Now the company has done just that, and organizations including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy are not happy. Facebook has stated it will now connect users’ phone numbers with Facebook’s systems, offering “better friend suggestions” and more relevant ads. The new approach will help Facebook finally monetize WhatsApp.

Bloomberg reports that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is “reviewing a joint complaint from two consumer privacy groups filed Monday claiming that Facebook’s move violates federal law banning unfair and deceptive practices.”

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European Union regulators have also rattled swords about privacy of their citizens. What some organizations are most concerned about is that, from now on, “the onus is on users to opt out of the data transfer” rather than on Facebook to gain consent.

Under a 2011 settlement with the FTC, Facebook is “obliged to ask users for their permission to make any changes to its privacy practices” and the agency can “levy fines if it finds Facebook violated that agreement.”

“You can’t make a change like this retroactively under the FTC’s view of deception,” said University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo in The Wall Street Journal.

“WhatsApp made a commitment to its users, to the Federal Trade Commission, and to privacy authorities around the world not to disclose user data to Facebook,” explained EPIC president Marc Rotenberg. “Now they have broken that commitment.” WSJ says that another privacy advocate, “the Brussels-based EDRi recommended users switch to another encrypted texting and calling app, Signal, which former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden recommends.”

The New York Times notes that, “in Europe, several national regulators have already taken legal action against Facebook, claiming that it illegally collected information online about people who were not signed up on the social network,” an accusation Facebook denies. The EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, a new “data-transfer pact,” may also come into play.

WhatsApp founder/chief executive Jan Koum, now a Facebook executive, said the app will “drop its subscription fee — the app’s only source of revenue at that point.” The changes are “the first steps by Facebook toward making money from the platform,” and WhatsApp has stated that it “complies with applicable laws” and that its “privacy policy [is] easily accessible.”

The company also points out that its users’ “encrypted messages stay private and no one else can read them. Not WhatsApp, not Facebook, nor anyone else.” WhatsApp also reiterated that the company “won’t post or share your WhatsApp number with others, including on Facebook, and we still won’t sell, share, or give your phone number to advertisers.”