SUSANNA ANBU

A recent in app notification informs users of WhatsApp about an update to WhatsApp’s terms of use and privacy policy which users would have to accept by 8 February 2021, should they wish to continue using the app. The message has caused many users of the app to question the data integrity of the platform, leading to users opting for alternative communication platforms. PDBY has taken a look at what this update entails and unpacked what the subsequent implications are for users of the app.

 Context

Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, hence WhatsApp LLC is one of four companies owned by Facebook Companies. On their website, WhatsApp LLC asserts that “We may share information about you within our family of companies to facilitate, support and integrate their activities and improve our services”.

What does the WhatsApp privacy policy say?

A privacy policy tied to any social media platform refers to what kind of information the platform collects and how this will affect the user’s privacy. The recent update targets business accounts.

The cause for concern has stemmed from the omission of a key paragraph in WhatsApp’s updated policy, that previously gave assurance to users that their data would not be shared with Facebook should they not wish to do so. The paragraph reads:

“If you are an existing user, you can choose not to have your WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook to improve your Facebook ads and products experiences.”

The absence of the previous paragraph in the new update gives the implication that users are coerced into data sharing with no exception. In response, the company asserts that the omission is merely a reflection of WhatsApp’s mode of operation since 2016.

What happened in August 2016?

A major update was announced by Whatsapp LLC during this time that allowed the app to share user information and other metadata with Facebook. During this time period, users were given a choice to agree or opt out of this data sharing with Facebook. WhatsApp honoured a user’s choice had they opted out of the data sharing agreement. This feature to opt out is no longer available in the app’s settings, but to check whether your account has opted out of the data sharing, simply navigate to Settings> Request account info. This should send you a report in 3 days as to whether you had opted out of the feature to share your data with Facebook (this would only be the case had you opted out in 2016).

The discrepancy now however, resides in the billions of users who have started using the app since 2016 have obviously missed out on the previous window period where they could have chosen to opt out of this data sharing. This means that by default, users of WhatsApp have had their data shared with Facebook since 2016.

What does all this mean now?

Although many users, who missed the opt-out window period in 2016, by default have their data shared with Facebook, this has no impact on WhatsApp’s privacy features such as end-to-end encryption. Any messages, photos or media content that has been sent and received on a device, can only be viewed on that device, meaning WhatsApp and Facebook will not be able to access these.

What information does WhatsApp share with Facebook?

This is centred mainly on a user’s account information such as how often the user logs in and out of WhatsApp, battery health information, operating system, app version and the phone number associated with the account.

WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption feature allows the app to protect the privacy of a user’s message content, giving motivation to the belief that the new update to the recent policy change, is not new or a cause for worry.

What are the effects of this share?

If you simply have a WhatsApp account and do not have a Facebook account, there are no tangible difference that can be discerned. Those owning both accounts, will see targeted ads on Facebook based on the phone number linking.

This new update is targeted for business accounts which will allow businesses to store and manage their WhatsApp chats, allowing WhatsApp to access these, however, the average user will experience no effects on their chats as this update does not target non business chats and account data.

The take home point from the policy update is that individual messages on WhatsApp are safe due to the end to end encryption feature on WhatsApp. This means that once a message, photo or any other media content has been delivered, it is automatically deleted from WhatsApp’s servers, thereby maintaining the user’s data integrity.

How reliable is end-to-end encryption?

This open source encryption scheme has been hailed as “state of the art” due to the source code governing this encryption being audited by independent security experts open whisper systems

Should I uninstall WhatsApp?

The decision to uninstall an app is informed by personal choice, however, users are encouraged to make an informed decision by assessing the implications that the new policy change has for them, as the average user, with a non-business account as the change targets business accounts. Some of the alternatives that have been suggested include smaller communication platforms such as Telegram and Signal. Users are encouraged to read the aforementioned platforms’ privacy platforms and make an informed choice on the kind of platform they wish to undertake communication on.

Sources:

PDBY is the official student newspaper of the University of Pretoria.
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