A pop-up notification has alerted the messaging app’s users to a practice that’s been in place since 2016.
“I don’t trust any product made by Facebook.”Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
Since Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, users have wondered and worried about how much data would flow between the two platforms. Many of them experienced a rude awakening this week, as a new in-app notification raises awareness about a step WhatsApp actually took to share more with Facebook back in 2016.
“I don’t trust any product made by Facebook.”
Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
None of this has at any point impacted WhatsApp’s marquee feature: end-to-end encryption. Messages, photos, and other content you send and receive on WhatsApp can only be viewed on your smartphone and the devices of the people you choose to message with. WhatsApp and Facebook itself can’t access your communications. In fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to expanding end-to-end encryption offerings as part of tying the company’s different communication platforms together. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a trove of other data WhatsApp can collect and share about how you use the app. The company says it collects user information “to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services.”
In practice, this means that WhatsApp shares a lot of intel with Facebook, including account information like your phone number, logs of how long and how often you use WhatsApp, information about how you interact with other users, device identifiers, and other device details like IP address, operating system, browser details, battery health information, app version, mobile network, language and time zone. Transaction and payment data, cookies, and location information are also all fair game to share with Facebook depending on the permissions you grant WhatsApp in the first place.
“WhatsApp is great for protecting the privacy of your message content,” says Johns Hopkins University cryptographer Matthew Green. “But it feels like the privacy of everything else you do is up for grabs.”
Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014 and noted at the time that it and the company’s chat platform Messenger would operate as “standalone” products. The slow shift toward integration has been controversial internally, and may have contributed to the departure in late 2017 and 2018, respectively, of WhatsApp cofounders Brian Acton and Jan Koum. A few months after leaving, Acton cofounded the nonprofit Signal Foundation. The organization maintains and develops the open source Signal Protocol, which WhatsApp and the secure messaging app Signal, among others, use to implement end-to-end encryption.
“Today privacy is becoming a much more mainstream discussion,” Acton said at the WIRED25 conference in 2019. “People are asking questions about privacy, and they want security and privacy built into the terms of service.”
“I don’t trust any product made by Facebook,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. “Their business model is surveillance. Never forget that.”
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