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Relaxing Privacy Vow, WhatsApp Will Share Some Data With Facebook

When Facebook bought the start-up WhatsApp in 2014, Jan Koum, one of WhatsApp's founders, declared that the deal would not affect the digital privacy of his mobile messaging service's millions of users.

"We don't know your birthday. We don't know your home address," Mr. Koum wrote in a blog post at the time. "None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that."

Two years later, in a move that is rankling some of the company's more than one billion users, WhatsApp will soon begin to share some member information with Facebook.

WhatsApp said on Thursday that it would start disclosing the phone numbers and analytics data of its users to Facebook. It will be the first time the messaging service has connected users' accounts to the social network to share data, as Facebook tries to coordinate information across its collection of businesses.

WhatsApp is changing its policy as it begins building a moneymaking business after long placing little emphasis on revenue. The company plans to allow businesses to contact customers directly through its platform. A similar strategy is already being tested on Facebook Messenger, a separate messaging service Facebook owns.

"We want to explore ways for you to communicate with businesses that matter to you, too, while still giving you an experience without third-party banner ads and spam," WhatsApp said in a blog post announcing the changes to its privacy policy.

Among the changes, Facebook will be able to use a person's phone number to improve other Facebook-operated services, such as making new Facebook friend suggestions, or better-tailored advertising, WhatsApp added. It said the data-sharing would also be used to fight spam text messages across its service.

WhatsApp emphasized that neither it nor Facebook would be able to read users' encrypted messages and that individual phone numbers would not be given to advertisers. WhatsApp users are still required to provide a phone number only to sign up for the service, and can opt out of giving it to Facebook.

While WhatsApp operates autonomously from Facebook, Mr. Koum sits on Facebook's board.

The changes were immediately viewed with a critical eye by some who were concerned when Facebook bought WhatsApp that their data could one day be misused. WhatsApp made early inroads with people worldwide partly for its hard-line stance on privacy and individual liberties, which was rooted in Mr. Koum's youth in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, where, he has said, he lived in fear of his communications being monitored. Mr. Koum has also been outspoken against advertising in the app in general.

Many WhatsApp users have appreciated just how different the service is from Facebook. In some countries, like Brazil, WhatsApp's focus on privacy has led to criticism from law enforcement agencies that they cannot gain access to users' encrypted messages.

"Our values and our respect for your privacy continue to guide the decisions we make at WhatsApp," Mr. Koum said in a post on Thursday. "It's why we've rolled out end-to-end encryption, which means no one can read your messages other than the people you talk to. Not us, not Facebook, nor anyone else."

He added, "Our focus is the same as it's always been — giving you a fast, simple and reliable way to stay in touch with friends and loved ones around the world."

WhatsApp's privacy policy overhaul raises concerns about potential legal challenges. Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group in Washington, said it would file a complaint on Monday with the Federal Trade Commission to stop WhatsApp from sharing users' data with Facebook. The group filed a similar case in 2014, citing promises that WhatsApp had made to protect individuals' privacy.

"Many users signed up for WhatsApp and not Facebook, precisely because WhatsApp offered, at the time, better privacy practices," Mr. Rotenberg said by email. "If the F.T.C. does not bring an enforcement action, it means that even when users choose better privacy services, there is no guarantee their data will be protected."

Similar legal steps could be taken abroad, where data protection rules are tougher. In Europe, for instance, several national regulators have already taken legal action against Facebook, claiming that it illegally collected information online about people who were not signed up on the social network. Facebook has denied the accusations.

Facebook has also been at the heart of a debate over how people's information held in Europe — the company's users outside the United States are regulated from Dublin — should be transferred to the United States.

In a legal case involving Facebook last year, Europe's top court ruled that American privacy standards did not offer sufficient protections to the region's citizens. The court, the European Court of Justice, also invalidated the so-called safe harbor agreement that permitted technology giants and 4,000 other companies to routinely move data across the Atlantic.

A new data-transfer pact, known as the E.U.-U.S. Privacy Shield, recently came into force, but it is facing legal challenges as privacy campaigners remain concerned that data held in Europe could be improperly read by government agencies when moved to the United States.

WhatsApp's new privacy policy may put it in the middle of this tussle, pushing the company to reassure concerned users about how Facebook may use their data.

[Source: By Mike Isaac and Mark Scott, International New York Times, San Francisco, 25Aug16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 31Aug16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.