WhatsApp and Privacy: Get The Facts Right

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.10.33 AM
I’m pretty surprised that WhatsApp’s official website hasn’t updated its screenshots.

The hoo-hah over WhatsApp’s changes to its Terms of Service and Privacy Policy has caused quite a stir recently, with many groups calling foul to WhatsApp’s doings as a sly move in an attempt to make more money. I certainly thought that it was a bad move on WhatsApp, but in light of recent discussions I’ve seen from friends in our conversations and on Facebook, I decided to dive into the situation to shed some light on the actual facts (instead of the erroneous claims that is often seen on social media).

Yes, WhatsApp is sharing your phone number with Facebook, but that doesn’t mean random people can see your phone number.

I was initially skeptical about this, but it turns out that this is indeed happening, despite what WhatsApp claims in the “Account” page:

Your chats and phone number will not be shared onto Facebook regardless of this setting.

I believe that it’s clever wordplay intended to misguide users here – “shared onto Facebook” probably means that your personal information will not be, in any way, visible to the news feed, or any feature on Facebook that can be viewed by other users in a social context.

Your phone number, however, will still be imported into Facebook’s systems, through a two-tier approach implemented by the opt-out feature (the checkbox in your Account settings):

  • If you do not opt-out, your mobile number will be used for future value-added services, as quoted from the WhatsApp blog post:

    Whether it’s hearing from your bank about a potentially fraudulent transaction, or getting notified by an airline about a delayed flight, many of us get this information elsewhere, including in text messages and phone calls. We want to test these features in the next several months, but need to update our terms and privacy policy to do so.

    And by connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them. For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you’ve never heard of.

  • If you opt-out, none of that will happen to you, but your phone number is still being shared into Facebook’s systems for other services that do not impact you on a personal level:

    The Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities.

While this may potentially introduce spam calls and messages, I think the services that WhatsApp is planning to implement seem exciting enough for me to remain opted in – after all, who doesn’t want their life made simpler?

No, your chats will not be readable by WhatsApp.

In addition, when you and your contacts use the latest version of our app, your messages are end-to-end encrypted by default. When your messages are end-to-end encrypted, only the people you are messaging with can read them – not WhatsApp, Facebook, or anyone else.

That’s that. No privacy concerns here.

Yes, WhatsApp did not honor its promise of upholding privacy as a priority.

When WhatsApp was launched in 2009, its founders promised not to sell your personal information to anyone. They reaffirmed this in 2014. Guess not.

Ultimately, I wasn’t surprised at the bold move – after all, we are using a free service, and WhatsApp using these information to build a better ecosystem (and earn money, I guess) should be expected. Of course, them going back on their word is another matter that will definitely make people lose their trust in WhatsApp.


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