Privacy Groups Pounce on WhatsApp Data Handover to Facebook

EPIC, CDD and Overseas Privacy Regulators Look Into Data Transfer

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Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

In 2014, when Facebook announced its proposed acquisition of mobile messaging service WhatsApp, the news rang data privacy alarm bells at the Federal Trade Commission. Now, just days after WhatsApp said it will alter its privacy policy to allow it to transfer user phone numbers and other data to Facebook to enable communications between brands and consumers, two privacy groups have petitioned the FTC to block the move.

In their letter to the commission on Monday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy asked the FTC to investigate WhatsApp. The groups called the data handover to Facebook "unfair and deceptive," noting, "WhatsApp users could not reasonably have anticipated that by selecting a pro-privacy messaging service, they would subject their data to Facebook's data collection practices."

EPIC argued the data transfer should take place only on an opt-in basis.

For now, WhatsApp said Facebook will use its data, including user phone numbers, to track metrics, refine Facebook ad targeting, and enable communications between businesses and WhatsApp users, such as flight delay notifications. WhatsApp stressed it will keep its system free of "third-party banner ads and spam."

"We want to test these features in the next several months, but need to update our terms and privacy policy to do so," stated WhatsApp on Thursday.

Overseas regulators are already on the case. The Information Commissioner's Office, an independent privacy authority in the U.K., said in a statement last week that it is "looking into" WhatsApp's privacy policy changes. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in the statement, "Our role is to pull back the curtain on things like this, ensuring that companies are being transparent with the public about how their personal data is being shared, and protecting consumers by making sure the law is being followed."

European privacy watchdogs also responded to the privacy policy change. According to Reuters, French data protection group CNIL, which chairs the European Commission's privacy regulations arm Article 29 Working Party, said, "Each European authority will be following the changes made to WhatsApp's privacy policy with great vigilance."

In its explanation of the privacy policy changes, WhatsApp said Facebook will not receive contents of messages, photos or account information. "This means, for example, although some information will be shared with Facebook (such as your phone number), that information will not be seen by other people on Facebook. In addition, when you and your contacts use the latest version of our app, your messages are end-to-end encrypted by default," the company wrote. "When your messages are end-to-end encrypted, only the people you are messaging with can read them -- not WhatsApp, Facebook, or anyone else."

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