Facebook’s data-sharing WhatsApp plan suffers fresh blow

8 Nov 2016

Facebook and WhatsApp. Image: Massimo Salesi/Shutterstock

UK officials order Facebook to stop collecting data from WhatsApp users, a blow to the company’s latest plan to better target users with tailored advertisements.

The UK information commissioner has ordered a halt to Facebook’s trawling of WhatsApp user data just weeks after it began, following in Germany’s footsteps as consumers continue to get to grips with the confusing situation.

Facebook’s great plans for WhatsApp were shrouded in mystery when it bought the instant messaging app for $19bn in 2014. Would it pump ads onto the clean, lean, green WhatsApp machine? Would it sync it up with its own dominant social media service? Would it charge its new 1bn customers?



The answer to the latter of those three was an explicit ‘no’. The former two questions, though, had legs.

In January, WhatsApp announced plans to link businesses with customers – though it was never really clear how this would happen. Then in August, all was revealed.

“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,” said the company in a blog post at the time.

This was a massive shift away from what co-founder Jan Koum said at the time of Facebook’s purchase, noting: “None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that.”

WhatsApp has started disclosing the phone numbers and analytics data of its users to its parent company. The idea behind the shift is to allow businesses to contact WhatsApp users directly.

Though the UK is having none of it.

UK shift

“I had concerns that consumers weren’t being properly protected, and it’s fair to say the enquiries my team have made haven’t changed that view,” said Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s information commissioner.

“I don’t think users have been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with their information, and I don’t think WhatsApp has got valid consent from users to share the information.

“I also believe users should be given ongoing control over how their information is used, not just a 30-day window.”

Facebook has “agreed to pause” its sharing policy in the UK until the commissioner is pleased that changes have been made to better inform the public, and better empower their ongoing desires.

If it starts up again without Denham’s approval, “it may face enforcement” from her office.

Denham said she’s working with data protection authorities throughout Europe on this, namechecking the Irish Data Protection Commissioner in particular.

Germany first

In late September, at the end of the 30-day warning it gave users – within which, but not after, they had the option to opt out of the data sharing plan – Facebook was told by the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information that it must stop collecting and storing WhatsApp data.

The commissioner said that Facebook cannot collect and store the data because it has not obtained effective approval from the German user community.

Interestingly, the commissioner also ordered the deletion of all information gathered on Germany’s 35m WhatsApp users up until that period.

Funnily enough, this comes at a time when WhatsApp, and Facebook in general, has been praised for its privacy protocols.

Selecting 11 companies behind some of the most popular messaging apps in the world, Amnesty International looked into the privacy attributes provided by companies like Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.

Facebook was ranked the best company of those investigated, with Amnesty highlighting WhatsApp as a particularly positive tool, noting it as the “only app where users are explicitly warned when end-to-end encryption is not applied to a particular chat”.

Facebook and WhatsApp. Image: Massimo Salesi/Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic