WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum leaves Facebook after privacy clash

1 May 2018

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum. Image: Cat Walker/Shutterstock

Jan Koum flees Facebook amid concern over reported efforts to weaken WhatsApp’s encryption.

Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp who sold the company for $19bn in 2014 to Facebook, has left the social network in a clash over privacy. The billionaire founder is also planning to step down from Facebook’s board of directors.

Koum is reportedly concerned over Facebook’s alleged attempts to use personal data from WhatsApp and weaken its encryption.

On Koum’s Facebook page, there was a spirit of bonhomie, with the WhatsApp co-founder revealing plans to take time out to spruce up his collection of air-cooled Porsches.

“It’s been almost a decade since Brian and I started WhatsApp, and it’s been an amazing journey with some of the best people. But it is time for me to move on. I’ve been blessed to work with such an incredibly small team and see how a crazy amount of focus can produce an app used by so many people all over the world.

“I’m leaving at a time when people are using WhatsApp in more ways than I could have imagined.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded: “Jan, I will miss working so closely with you. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done to help connect the world, and for everything you’ve taught me, including about encryption and its ability to take power from centralised systems and put it back in people’s hands. Those values will always be at the heart of WhatsApp.”

But, despite the feigned bonhomie, the tech world is being rattled by an undercurrent that the departure is really about privacy and monetisation.

It is understood that Koum had been showing up less frequently at Facebook’s offices.

Koum’s co-founder at WhatsApp, Brian Acton, left Facebook in November and was vocal in endorsing the #DeleteFacebook campaign that came in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal where a political marketing firm tied to the Trump (US) and Leave (UK) campaigns was able to game Facebook to get access to 87m users’ data.

Various reports suggest both Koum and Acton had attempted to resist Facebook’s efforts to monetise WhatsApp or weaken the encryption they added in 2016.

When Facebook bought the company in 2014, Acton and Koum promised users that there would be no ads interrupting their communication.

The battle took on extra significance when the Cambridge Analytica affair emerged in March.

WhatsApp with encryption, Facebook?

WhatsApp has more than 1.5bn users worldwide and no doubt Facebook’s shareholders have been pressuring the tech giant to make money out of this huge audience.

Facebook itself has 2.2bn monthly active users and reported revenues of close to $12bn in its most recent quarter.

Its various attempts at monetising WhatsApp were evident recently, including the creation of a separate Android version of WhatsApp aimed at small businesses.

Facebook clashed with European regulators in recent years when it emerged that it would start sharing some WhatsApp user data – including phone numbers – with the Facebook platform.

In November, a taskforce was created by the Article 29 Working Party, a group of pan-European data regulators, because it felt concerns over consent for data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook had still not been resolved.

In 2017, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ordered WhatsApp to cease sharing personal data with Facebook. Last March, the ICO completed its investigation and found WhatsApp had not identified a lawful basis of processing for any sharing of personal data, and failed to provide users with clear and fair processing information in relation to sharing personal data.

Despite Zuckerberg’s pointed reference to encryption in his post on Koum’s Facebook page, the words may ring hollow as the departure of an executive of Koum’s standing and talent speaks volumes.

More than anything, the public needs greater assurance from Facebook about the protection of their data.

Your move, Zuckerberg.

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum. Image: Cat Walker/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years