WhatsApp’s 2021 privacy policy: why is it so controversial?

In one of the company’s latest, and perhaps most controversial moves, Facebook, the owner of WhatsApp, has launched a new privacy policy for its 2 billion users, which they will have to accept if they want to keep using the platform. 

The new terms, delivered to users in early 2021, have caused many privacy advocates to raise concerns about data sharing between platforms. WhatsApp has hit back, claiming that the changes are essential to help the platform integrate services like business company chatbots (a key feature of Facebook Messenger) into WhatsApp too. So, what exactly does the policy say and is it different from what the company already did? Read on to find out.

The privacy policy explained

WhatsApp now has the right to share your data with other platforms owned by Facebook, including Instagram – even if you don’t have an account on these other web services. 

The reason behind this decision is largely to help the companies earn more revenue through their marketing and advertisements. With almost all of the $21.5 billion in revenue Facebook generated in the third quarter of 2020 coming from ads, the company wants to start to monetise WhatsApp and provide even more targeted adverts to users.

For users that downloaded WhatsApp before 2016 this data sharing practice was optional – the data was still collected but users could choose if they wanted Facebook to use this data to improve its ads. This is what is now set to become mandatory. If you downloaded WhatsApp post 2016, Facebook has been collecting a lot of information since your download without an option to refuse.

What data can WhatsApp share?

Firstly, it is worth noting that WhatsApp cannot read or share any of your messages. The service remains end-to-end encrypted, meaning the data you send in a message is transferred into a scrambled code to the phone you are sending the message to and only the phone receiving the message can decrypt what this code means. 

It is also important to point out that before the latest privacy policy, Facebook already gathered a lot of data from WhatsApp users and the latest privacy policy simply clarifies what Facebook has been doing with user data since 2016. This includes things like how often the app is opened, the resolution of the device screen, the location estimated from the internet connection, users’ IP address, profile picture, status updates, battery health and more. The new privacy policy is an extension of this tracking but now it’s being used to support businesses.

Below is a list of the new data that will now also be collected and shared with businesses:

  • Transaction data (if you decide to make payments on the platform)
  • Information on how users interact with businesses when using the platform.
  • Profile status
  • Login activity

Facebook has also said that with any messages exchanged between a user and a company, that business “can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.”

Are the changes the same worldwide?

There’s a difference in the text for the European region compared with the rest of the world. Notably, people residing in the EU, EEA, and post-Brexit UK aren’t affected by this terms update, because of their deep protections from ad targeting by GDPR. 

Nonetheless, with the UK leaving Europe as of January 1st 2021, the GDPR protections no longer directly apply to the UK meaning millions of UK users will be moved out of the jurisdiction of EU privacy laws to the US (which has no such comprehensive data protection framework) next year. As such, there will be more data sharing on platforms like WhatsApp for UK residents soon. 

For the rest of the world, WhatsApp explicitly states that it wants to let users start connecting their Facebook Pay account “to pay for things on WhatsApp,” which is why users need to accept the new privacy policy or have their account rendered inactive. 

While these changes were originally due to come into effect on February 8th, WhatsApp has now delayed the deadline to May 15th while it further explains the changes to users.

If you have any questions or other technology queries comment below or tweet @techtroublesho1.

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