WhatsApp cannot share contact information, says South African regulator

4 Mar 2021

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South Africa’s information regulator said the Facebook company requires prior authorisation to share users’ contact information.

In January of this year, WhatsApp announced an update to its privacy policy, which sparked concerns around the world among users and privacy experts.

The backlash forced the messaging app to postpone the update until 15 May, to allow the company time to roll out clearer messaging around any terms and conditions that would change.

However, it faces another blow this week as the South African information regulator (IR) has written to Facebook South Africa and outlined its concerns about the company’s privacy policy, specifically regarding the collection and sharing of users’ contact information.

“WhatsApp cannot, without obtaining prior authorisation from the IR, process any contact information of its users for a purpose other than the one for which the number was specifically intended at collection, with the aim of linking that information jointly with information processed by other Facebook companies,” the regulator said.

It added that this is in accordance with section 57 of the Protection of Personal Information Act, South Africa’s data protection law.

WhatsApp has insisted the latest privacy update does not expand its ability to share data with Facebook, but “provides further transparency about how we collect and use data”.

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Under GDPR in Europe, the Facebook-owned messaging app had agreed to stop sharing personal data with Facebook. However, outside Europe, WhatsApp’s ability to share data with Facebook is less limited.

While messages remained encrypted, a 2016 privacy update allowed WhatsApp to share users’ phone numbers, logs of how long and how often they use WhatsApp, information about how users interact with other users and more.

“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.

The South African IR highlighted the difference between Europe and other parts of the world, and the regulator’s chair, Pansy Tlakula, said she was “very concerned” that WhatsApp users in the European Union receive significantly higher privacy protection than users in South Africa and Africa generally.

“Our legislation is very similar to that of the EU. It was based on that model deliberately, as it provides a significantly better model for the protection of personal information than that in other jurisdictions,” she said.

“We do not understand why Facebook has adopted this differentiation between Europe and Africa.”

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com