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Explained: How private is WhatsApp, what can FB see, and should you look at alternatives?

In a clarification on its privacy policy update, WhatsApp has made a distinction between private and business messages. What does the update change for you, and does it call for switching to another app?

Written by Nandagopal Rajan , Shruti Dhapola | Chandigarh, New Delhi |
Updated: January 22, 2021 2:33:51 pm
WhatsApp on Tuesday had to clarify yet again that the policy changes nothing for those messaging friends and family. (Illustration: Mithun Chakraborty)

Amid continuing concerns over its new privacy policy released a few days ago, WhatsApp on Tuesday had to clarify yet again that the policy changes nothing for those messaging friends and family. It also clarified that in some conditions, business messages — “different than messaging with your family or friends” — can be read by Facebook and could be used for marketing purposes.

The latest clarification brings in what seems like a differentiation between “messages with friends or family” and “messages with a business”. It says the new privacy policy pertains to the latter alone and the former remains unchanged.

What does that mean for someone who uses WhatsApp only to chat with friends and family?

🔴Neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can “see your private messages or hear your calls”. Personal messages are protected by end-to-end encryption and will continue to be so.

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🔴WhatsApp does not keep logs of who anyone is messaging or calling, because it considers a data dump of this kind a “privacy and security risk”.

🔴WhatsApp cannot see a location you have shared with a friend as that too is protected by end-to-end encryption.

🔴WhatsApp does not share a user’s contacts with Facebook, or any other app.

🔴No data from groups will be shared with Facebook for ad purposes and all the communication within is end-to-end encrypted. So, if you are a member of an office, RWA or school group, there is nothing to worry as nothing changes for you.

What you get on WhatsAPp, other apps

How are business messages different?

The interplay between WhatsApp and Facebook, its parent company, becomes more visible when it comes to messages to business, where the new privacy changes have been applied.

WhatsApp has clarified that some “large businesses” might need to use “secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts”.

And “whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook”. But, WhatsApp says it will “clearly label conversations with businesses that are choosing to use hosting services from Facebook”.

These labels are already visible when you are communicating with a business, and users will now need to decide whether they want to be in a conversation, the details of which could be used to show them targeted ads. Using the Shops features on WhatsApp could also open up your preferences for targeted ads on other Facebook products such as Instagram. So clearly, business messaging, which WhatsApp has been gradually activating across many markets, will ultimately results in advertisements based on preferences you have shown to the business.

If you use WhatsApp for a business and have a list of clients, the business on the other side too will see the conversation and know your preferences. This could be used to show you ads on Facebook platforms. If you are the business owner, you could use some of the insights to run ads targeting your customers on Facebook and other services.

What changes for you in these scenarios?

IF YOU ARE ON FACEBOOK: Nothing changes when it comes to personal chats. However, if you are engaged in conversations with a business, you might start seeing related ads on Facebook and other company products such as Instagram.

OR IF YOU ARE NOT: Nothing changes for you as a WhatsApp user, as you cannot be shown ads on Facebook.

IF YOU HAVE A LARGE FOLLOWING: WhatsApp remains a secure platform for all your personal conversations with individuals and groups. However, it might be a good idea to be cautious while using the business features as many people could have access to your preferences.

OR IF YOU DO NOT: Your regular WhatsApp conversations remain safe and end-to-end encrypted.

Do my Facebook friends get to know what my WhatsApp contacts are sending me?

No. Your conversations are encrypted, and neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see what is being discussed. This applies to all your groups as well.

Which countries have a different policy?

While there is data sharing with Facebook even in the European Union, users there get more control. That’s because the EU has a different privacy policy on any software product compared to the rest of the world. EU’s General Data

Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one of the strictest in the world and ensures that consumers have the full rights on their data and how that data is processed, and can even demand erasure of information.

According to WhatsApp’s own policy for EU, consumers have “the right to access, rectify, port, and erase your information, as well as the right to restrict and object to certain processing of your information.”

While the WhatsApp privacy policy in the EU also talks about data sharing with Facebook, consumers there get a special setting called “Managing and Retaining Your Information”, with which they can rectify, update or erase information that the platform controls. This option is not available elsewhere. Consumers in the EU can even withdraw their consent to WhatsApp for processing of data, thanks to GDPR.

Interestingly, after the EU antitrust authorities in 2017 fined Facebook 110 million euros for misleading regulators during a 2014 review of the WhatsApp takeover, the social network had told these regulators it technically wasn’t possible to combine WhatsApp data with its other services.

So, why doesn’t India get such a setting with extensive controls?

India lacks a regulatory authority. Until the Personal Data Protection Bill becomes law, it will be hard to police tech companies on how user data should be processed.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy applies to every country, including the US, and users will have to accept the terms and conditions to continue using the service.

How does one read the update in the context of the regulatory scrutiny Facebook faces in the US and EU?

The regulatory heat makes the timing of this update interesting. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a lawsuit against Facebook over antitrust, anti-competitive policies. It has also put Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram under the scanner.

These two apps have helped Facebook dominate the social media and messaging space in the last five years. If the FTC wins its cases, it wants Facebook to sell off both WhatsApp and Instagram, which could prove disastrous for the company.

Further, it would mean that Zuckerberg’s vision of interoperability among other apps in the bouquet would come to an end. In his scheme of things, a WhatsApp user should be able to message someone on Messenger, even if they don’t use that app. This interoperability will be limited to Facebook’s own set of products.

The EU is also investigating Facebook over claims that it trampled competition with the help of the vast troves of user data. The company has resisted EU’s demands for several documents and filed a lawsuit against this last year as well.

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Should I stay on WhatsApp or migrate to another app?

There is no need to move out of WhatsApp if you use it primarily to communicate with friends and family. However, there seems to be an exodus happening. Signal is topping the charts on Apple’s App Store and it appears to be driven by downloads from India, according to a tweet from the company.

Signal too offers end-to-end encryption (E2E), similar to WhatsApp, but it is run by a non-profit co-founded by WhatsApp founder Brian Acton. Signal’s E2E protocol is actually used by WhatsApp. It has a number of features that WhatsApp offers, but some such as group video calling are still in the beta stage. It also lacks some of the convenience WhatsApp offers such as the ability to back up all your chats to a third-party service such as Google Drive or iCloud, or the ability to connect to business accounts.

Another encrypted messaging app is Telegram, created by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, with features similar to WhatsApp. It is more evolved than Signal because it has been around since 2013. Telegram groups can be made visible to all or keep private.

The biggest advantage of WhatsApp is that it is ubiquitous and everyone on your contact list is using it. On Signal, even now, you have to go looking for users to chat with. But the app will make sense if an entire group decides to move conversations there. If you are thinking of quitting WhatsApp but still continuing to use Facebook products such as Messenger, Instagram and Facebook itself, then the exercise will be pointless.

WhatsApp FAQs

The WhatsApp policy update has raised several concerns. Going by clarifications from WhatsApp, many of these concerns are unfounded:

Does WhatsApp now share my messages with Facebook?

No, messages will continue to be end-to-end encrypted and even WhatsApp cannot see them. WhatsApp head Will Cathcart tweed: “We’re committed to this technology and committed to defending it globally.”

Does WhatsApp share my location with Facebook?

Only approximate location information based on tower or IP, not live locations shared between users.

Does WhatsApp now own the content that I’ve shared?

No. All media is anyway end-to-end encrypted and cannot be seen, or used by WhatsApp. Nor is it stored after a message has been delivered.

Will WhatsApp show ads?

Not at the moment. If at all WhatsApp changes this, there will be another privacy policy update.

Will WhatsApp record and track my audio/video calls?

No. Again, all conversations and encrypted between the parties involved.

— Chetan Nayak

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