The WhatsApp Situation:What It All Means

Last week users of WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook, were met with a pop-up message notifying them that from February 8th, the app's privacy policy will change and that they must accept it if they are to continue using the app.

Judging from social media activity since the announcement was made, some of the app's 2 billion-plus users were not happy with the new privacy policy. Over the last few days, there has seemingly been an exodus of some sort from the app as users turned to WhatsApp's competitors like Telegram and Signal, the reason most cited being concern over the repercussions of WhatsApp's data sharing with Facebook.

To understand what exactly the updated privacy policy means, it is important to look a bit at WhatsApp's history especially its relationship with Facebook. In 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp and in 2016, as part of integration efforts, WhatsApp announced a major update to its privacy policy which stated that the app would start sharing user information and data with Facebook. So yes, WhatsApp actually started sharing your data with Facebook back in 2016, it's not something new.

When that privacy policy update was made back in 2016, users had a 30 days window period to opt-out of sharing their WhatsApp data with Facebook. So basically, the only people who haven't been having their WhatsApp data shared with Facebook are those who opted-out 5 years ago —the rest—well WhatsApp has been passing it to Facebook all along. 

Part of the reason why there was outrage about WhatsApp's announcement was that users assumed, and mistakenly so, that WhatsApp was going to start sharing their private messages with Facebook as a result of the new policy. Fortunately, private messages on WhatsApp are protected by end-to-end encryption meaning that only the sender and recipient can view the messages they exchange and no one else can, including WhatsApp themselves. The new privacy policy does not change this.

But here is where it gets really interesting. Despite not being able to access data in your private messages, WhatsApp, and Facebook, the parent company, still have access to a huge array of data that they collect about you as you use the app. This includes data like your phone number, how much time you spend on the app, details about the device you use, your location, cookies, etc. This data, though it might seem trivial to users compared to data from private WhatsApp messages, is extremely valuable to Facebook as it allows them to better target ads to WhatsApp users when they are using other Facebook services like Instagram and Messenger.

Let's look at an example. WhatsApp collects data about your location and shares it with its parent company, Facebook. A marketer who is looking to sell products to people in your particular location then pays Facebook to show you ads about their products on Facebook's other platforms including  Facebook(the app), Instagram, Messenger, etc.  In short, your WhatsApp data (in this case your location) can be used by Facebook to show you an ad on its other platforms. Facebook gets to use your WhatsApp data to sell ads without having to even place ads on WhatsApp. Quite an ingenious business model right?

So now that we have dissected what WhatsApp's new policy privacy does not imply, what exactly does it imply then? Why did they make the announcement when they have already been sharing user data with Facebook for the last 5 years? Well, you remember those guys who were able to opt-out of sharing their WhatsApp data with Facebook when the option was available for 30 days back in 2016? That option is now gone and their data will now be shared with Facebook from February 8th.

This new policy works well for Facebook because not only will it increase the tech giant's data sources, but it will also make its services much more integrated. For example, when a WhatsApp user clicks on an Instagram ad to make a purchase, if the business that paid for the ad has "WhatsApp Business", the user can proceed to make a payment there, creating a more flexible and augmented ecosystem which is, in turn, more convenient and hence more likely to attract more users.

The revised policy also allows businesses to use data they collect from customers on WhatsApp Business to market their services to these customers. For example, if you browse a clothes catalog on a business' WhatsApp Business profile, they can use that data to show you their clothes ads on Facebook's other apps like Instagram and Messenger so you can finally make a purchase.

To sum up, for users, this new privacy policy does not change anything in terms of how they use the app. WhatsApp will still be sharing your generic data with Facebook as they have been doing since 2016. And no, data being shared with Facebook will not include your private WhatsApp chats as those are protected by end-to-end encryption. For businesses, the new privacy policy is good news as they get to not only increase their marketing channels but also enjoy the convenience of accepting payments on WhatsApp for ads they placed on the numerous Facebook apps.

So is WhatsApp's updated privacy policy reason enough to make you dump the app for Telegram or Signal? Well, it depends. If you are not using any of the other Facebook apps and had opted out of sharing your WhatsApp data with Facebook back in 2016, then yes, the updated privacy policy is reason enough to jump ship because the latter option will become null and void on February 8th and you will become just another Facebook data source.

If, however, you are using Instagram, Messenger, or Facebook, even if you stop using WhatsApp, you will still be sharing a whole lot of your data with Facebook through those other apps. By getting rid of WhatsApp, you are basically removing only a drop of data from the ocean of data that you are already giving to Facebook. At least that's a start.

Comments

  1. The messages may be end-to-end encrypted, but somehow still, some people, including me, have seen ads pop-up on Facebook about something they were talking about in their messages on WhatsApp. That's a bit problematic...

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    1. Thanks for the explained Ephy. You shared my exact sentiment. Only I didn't know about the opt out. I did know however that FB, IG and WhatsApp share data. As a digital marketer and a small biz owner it works for us. As a personal user we've been effed for a long time either way!

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