â€œ[B]y coordinating more with Facebook, weâ€™ll be able to do things like track basic metrics about how often people use our services and better fight spam on WhatsApp,â€ WhatsApp writes in a blog on the change today.
â€œFacebook 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 youâ€™ve never heard of.â€
WhatsAppÂ will also be sharing the data with the â€œFacebook family of companiesâ€ â€” so presumably its user dataÂ could also be fed toÂ VR firm Oculus Rift, another Fb acquisition, and photo-sharing networkÂ Instagram.
WhatsApp data that will beÂ shared under the new T&Cs includes theÂ phone number a user used to verify their account, and the last time theyÂ used theÂ service.
Two pieces of data which â€” on a creepinessÂ scale of â€˜personal intelÂ youâ€™d rather not hand over to a data-mining tech giantâ€™ â€” are both right up there.
There is an option to opt out of some of theÂ data sharing (specifically for ad and product purposes) Â â€” see lower down this post for more details â€” although most users will just tap â€˜I agreeâ€™ to WhatsAppâ€™sÂ new T&Cs without reading them andÂ realizing what they are agreeing to.
This is why, as weâ€™ve said before, T&Cs suck. And why user consent to a massive privacy shift like this shouldÂ certainlyÂ not default opt people in.
Privacy vs data
This is undoubtedly a huge step-change for a service that has typically prided itself on championing user privacy, including completing a rollout ofÂ end-to-end encryption across its entire service earlier this year, and continuing to fight requests from authorities to hand over user data.
But once WhatsApp agreed to be acquired by data-mining social network giant Facebook, back in February 2014, the writing was arguably on the wall for any pro-privacy stance.
Facebook is in the business of monetizing usage via interest-based advertising fed by harvesting the personal data of its users. WhatsAppâ€™s original business model, of charging users a small yearly subscription fee for an ad-free messaging service, was discontinued after Facebook took over ownership of the service.
The annual $1 fee was ditched in January this year, but WhatsApp still does not have a replacement business model â€” given its anti-ads stance (although itÂ isÂ laying the groundwork toÂ open up business accounts).
At the time of the acquisition Facebook said itÂ would be keeping the messaging giant independent, despite some obvious overlap with its own Facebook Messenger app.
WhileÂ WhatsApp founder Jan KoumÂ claimedÂ there would be no changes.Â â€œHereâ€™s what will change for you, our users: nothing.Â WhatsApp will remain autonomous and operate independently,â€ he wrote at the time, adding: â€œThere would have been no partnership between our two companies if we had to compromise on the core principles that will always define our company, our vision and our product.â€
Fast forward a couple of years andÂ one core principle â€” privacy â€” is now being, if not entirely compromised, at least loosened â€”Â given that Facebook will now be able to link users of its own social services with WhatsApp users. It will also be able to track relative usage of its services vs activity on the messaging app, as WhatsApp feeds it engagement intel via the â€˜last usedâ€™ signal.
Itâ€™s not clear from the WhatsApp blog post if other user data will be shared with Facebook. The wording suggests this is entirely possible, although if a user has updated to the latest version of the app, which end-to-end encrypts all content, then their messaging content at least cannot be shared, so long as the person they are messaging has also updated.
WhatsApp also makes this point in its blog post, noting: â€œWhen your messages are end-to-end encrypted, only the people you are messaging with can read them â€” not WhatsApp, Facebook, or anyone else.â€
But thatâ€™s kind of missing the point about letting Facebook triangulate users across two massive services, with over a billion active users apiece. It remains to be seen whether that collapsing of boundaries between two distinct services will catch the attention of data protection regulators in Europe, which has more stringentÂ privacy rules, and where Facebook has already faced multiple data protection related investigationsÂ and legal actions â€” and continues to do so.
Weâ€™ve asked WhatsApp for a comprehensive list of everything it intends to share with Facebook, and for a comprehensive list of everything Facebook intends to do with the data it will be receiving on WhatsApp users and their usage of the service â€” and will update this post with any response.
As well as phone number and last seenÂ data, TechCrunch understands Facebook will also be fed intel on a WhatApp userâ€™s operating system, mobile country code, mobile carrier code, screen resolution and device identifier. All of which open up plentiful tracking/ad-targeting possibilities.
But this looks very much like Facebook trying to â€˜fill inâ€™ missing mobile phone number data via the more comprehensive WhatsApp address book â€” given that the latter requires users to supply a number to verify anÂ account, whereas it is possible to use Facebook without supplying your mobile number (albeit, Facebook might well have grabbed your digitsÂ via your friends uploading their contactsâ€™ books to the service anywayâ€¦ And the serviceÂ periodically nags those who havenâ€™t to add aÂ mobile numberâ€¦).
WhatsApp says the data is being shared to â€œcoordinate more and improve experiences across our services and those of Facebook and the Facebook familyâ€ â€” going on to cite the following three specific examples:
- We will be able to more accurately count unique users
- We can better fight spam and abuse
- If you are a Facebook user, you might see better friend suggestions and more relevant ads on Facebook
We joined the Facebook family of companies in 2014. As part of the Facebook family of companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings. This includes helping improve infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our Services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities. Facebook and the other companies in the Facebook family also may use information from us to improve your experiences within their services such as making product suggestions (for example, of friends or connections, or of interesting content) andshowing relevant offers and ads. However, your WhatsApp messages will not be shared onto Facebook for others to see. In fact, Facebook will not use your WhatsApp messages for any purpose other than to assist us in operating and providing our Services.
Learn more about the Facebook family of companies and their privacy practices by reviewing their privacy policies.
One such marketing use-case for FacebookÂ to make use of the WhatsApp phone number data is for itsÂ Custom AudiencesÂ ad offering, whereby businesses using its platform can target ads based on an existing customer contact list they have.
So any WhatsApp users that have given aÂ businessÂ the same mobileÂ phone number they use for the app can beÂ served targeted ads by that same business via Facebook.
While a Facebook product use-case for the phone number data is toÂ expand the friend recommendations itÂ can send â€” by it being able to identify more networks of friends, based on linking more people toÂ mobile numbers.
Opting out of the data-sharing entirely does not seem to be possible, but WhatsApp is offering a partial opt out â€” specificallyÂ for Facebook ad targeting and product-related purposes.
However it notes thatÂ data will still be shared â€œfor 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 activitiesâ€.
So there is no way to totally opt out, short of short of stopping using WhatsApp.
A WhatsApp spokesperson declined to comment on why it is not offering users a complete opt out of data-sharing with Facebook, butÂ in a statement the spokesperson said: â€œWe understand people with WhatsApp accounts might want to opt out of sharing their account information to improve their Facebook experiences. They have an additional 30 days to opt out after accepting the new terms so they have time to consider their choices.â€
How to opt out of sharing data forÂ Facebook ad targetingÂ
WhatsAppÂ details two ways toÂ opt out of sharing data for Facebook ad targeting on itsÂ blogÂ here.
If youâ€™ve already accepted the new T&Cs without unchecking the box to share your information with Facebook WhatsApp is also offering a thirty-day window to make the same choice â€” via the settings page in the app.
To exercise your opt out in this scenario you need to go to Settings > Account > Share my account info in the app and uncheck the box/toggle the control displayed there. And doÂ so within the thirty-day window. Presumably, after that, even this partial opt out will expire.
ByÂ Natasha Lomas