What’s up with WhatsApp: update sparks privacy concerns

Image description: a graffiti painting of a laughing Mark Zuckerberg, accompanied by the caption “You’ve been Zucked”

When WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in February 2014, it led to a small exodus – rival messenger app Telegram claimed to see an increase of 8 million users. Ever since, Facebook has regularly inspired fear and concern with regard to the privacy of WhatsApp’s users. Upon acquiring WhatsApp, Facebook promised that the messaging app would not be required to share any data with its parent company. This pledge was quickly reneged upon; WhatsApp further stoked the trepidations of its users with an update to its privacy policy in 2016 that allowed for the sharing of metadata (for example, user phone numbers and the times at which the app is open) between Facebook and its subsidiary. This predictably sparked an outcry, which, however, failed to halt the change.

On 4th January of this year, WhatsApp updated its terms of service, changing how it shares data with the social media behemoth. Outside the EU and the UK, Facebook will be able to ‘manage business communications’ that take place on its subsidiary messenger service. This update to privacy policy will thus enable Facebook and WhatsApp to exchange payment and transaction details in order to help them improve the accuracy of their targeted advertising. Businesses connecting with their customers via WhatsApp will now be able to store such chats in Facebook-hosted servers and then use that data to inform their advertising on Facebook, according to the announcement laying out the update.

This is the latest move by Facebook that continues the trend of increased investment in functionality that encourages further e-commerce through its applications and better integrates all its messaging services into one framework. WhatsApp claims that these changes will lead to greater ‘interoperability’ between the platforms. Furthermore, conversations with businesses that Facebook ‘manages’ in this way are clearly marked on the messenger platform, a feature that seems to be geared towards placating the concerns of its two-billion-strong userbase. Throughout January, users of the platform were confronted with a pop-up message that asked them to consent to these changes in how data would be shared by early February, in order to keep on using the service.

A more skeptical commentator may argue that these privacy changes mark a watershed moment for users – a digital Rubicon, if you will.

Whilst the changes themselves are relatively unremarkable, in that they will affect a minority of the overall user base of the messenger service, the fallout of the announcement has had a drastic effect. News of the update has sparked concerns – which have escalated online – that WhatsApp users would be compelled to make Facebook privy to the content of their messages. While this couldn’t be further from the truth (in fact, neither WhatsApp nor Facebook is privy to the contents of messages due to the end-to-end encryption that the service provides), this has not stopped the defection of some millions of WhatsApp users to rival platforms. According to Sensor Tower, a company that provides app store analytics, amongst other things, the number of WhatsApp downloads fell from 11.3 million the week before the announcement to 9.7 million the week after it, a drop of 14%. Simultaneously, smaller rival messenger services Telegram and Signal (which was co-founded by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton after he quit the company following disagreements over privacy protections and its lack of independence from the rest of Facebook) saw large increases in the number of downloads.

There are a number of ways of explaining the exodus of users. WhatsApp contends that there has been a significant miscommunication on its part and that it has been further exacerbated by misinformation online (ironically, much of this is thought to have occurred through WhatsApp itself). The messenger app seeks to rectify the situation by pushing back the rollout of the proposed changes and by investing in an extensive advertisement campaign. A more skeptical commentator may argue that these privacy changes mark a watershed moment for users – a digital Rubicon, if you will – portending the further integration of WhatsApp and its parent company. Either way, these events could be the beginning of the end of WhatsApp’s virtual monopoly of the market for messaging apps.

Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash