What to expect from WhatsApp’s new ‘persistent’ update messages

14 May 2021

Image: © Sara Michilin/Stock.adobe.com

The Facebook-owned app will limit some functions and push messages on users to accept updates to its terms of service.

Once again WhatsApp is in the hot seat over updates to its terms of service.

The Facebook-owned app is pushing ahead with updating its user policy tomorrow (15 May) and will present users with “persistent” pop-up messages, urging them to accept.

“At that time, you’ll encounter limited functionality on WhatsApp until you accept the updates,” explains the WhatsApp FAQ.

WhatsApp said it will not delete anyone’s account but users that do not accept the terms will have restricted functionality after 15 May. This will include curtailing the ability to receive messages or make calls.

The updates to the policy have drawn much criticism. Earlier this year, WhatsApp was forced to postpone the update after a backlash from users.

The changes allow businesses to upload their information and product catalogues to WhatsApp, meaning users can interact with a business without ever leaving the app.

It is part of a wider aim by Facebook to turn WhatsApp into a super-app of sorts, à la WeChat in China, where users do more than just messaging.

This would be key to turning the app and its 2bn users into a serious revenue generator.

Messages and calls made through WhatsApp will still be protected with end-to-end encryption but the plans have raised eyebrows over how much data is collected and used to do all of this, and what data access third-party businesses will have as well.

Message sent to WhatsApp users about updates to the app

Notification sent to users. Screenshot: WhatsApp

In some parts of the world – excluding Europe – WhatsApp will share some information with Facebook, such as phone numbers, names, IP addresses, hardware details about your phone and any financial transaction data made through the app.

However, this data is not shared with Facebook in the EU and the UK, in accordance with data privacy laws in those jurisdictions. This means that a business won’t be able to contact you through WhatsApp without explicit consent.

Watchdog scrutiny

But these measures haven’t placated all regulators. Hamburg’s data protection authority ordered Facebook to cease processing WhatsApp user data for three months. The regulator expressed concerns around just how in-depth a user profile could be with this trove of data and pointed to the Cambridge Analytica scandal as an example of things going wrong.

Facebook, whose German base is in Hamburg, plans to appeal the ruling.

Further afield, a collection of Brazilian authorities, including the country’s data protection watchdog, bandied together to oppose the update, demanding another postponement and for the removal of the warning messages to users. India has moved firmly against the policy changes, claiming they violate local laws.

Since January, WhatsApp has pushed back against the criticism saying the changes are minor. WhatsApp pointed to the fact that messages will remain encrypted.

In that time, competitors Signal and Telegram, which tout themselves as more secure alternatives for messaging, have seen their user numbers spike. However, it’s unclear how many of these new users have become active users or just those that downloaded the apps out of curiosity amid the WhatsApp controversies.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin