Encryption hurdle in WhatsApp’s Facebook data-sharing plan

Better friend suggestions, ad targeting and personalised interactions with businesses are being promised.

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WhatsApp Facebook Privacy

Instant messenger service WhatsApp has announced that it will share user data with its owner Facebook, leading to an uproar on social media. However, its encryption policy could keep conversations private – for now.

It’s been two years since one of the largest and most surprising tech buyouts we’ve ever seen. In 2014 Facebook bought WhatsApp for a staggering $19 billion (Dh70 billion). WhatsApp today has more than one billion registered users and is the go-to messaging app in many emerging markets and regions where Facebook has yet to capture the majority.

When the purchase happened, users were up in arms about how this would affect their privacy thanks to Facebook’s notorious history with its own well-documented user privacy issues over the years. At the time, co-founder Jan Koum made it clear that WhatsApp has always respected user privacy and would never sell private information to advertisers. However, over the weekend WhatsApp updated its privacy policy to state that it would share a limited amount of user data — primarily phone numbers — with Facebook. WhatsApp claims this is to better friend suggestions on Facebook and deliver more relevant ads to users.

Better friend suggestions and ad targeting aside, WhatsApp also wants to explore more opportunity to connect its users with relevant businesses in a more personalised manner. The examples it gives are of banks being able to inform customers directly of fraudulent transactions and notifications from airlines about flight delays. These examples may sound familiar because Facebook has been toying with these ideas through it’s Messenger bots. Though still in its infancy, we can’t know for sure where these concepts will eventually lead. WhatsApp has a strong user base that likely doesn’t use Messenger and this is a great way of adding a massive user base into the same program, albeit on two different platforms. At the end of the day, Facebook wants to be an integral part of the entire world’s populace any way it can.

Although WhatsApp is changing its privacy policy, it will continue to support the end-to-end encryption it had recently established. This means, in theory, no one — including Facebook and WhatsApp — will be able to read these messages. How ad targeting can then be made more relevant, we have no idea.

Now WhatsApp undoubtedly foresaw the furor this would cause and have baked in an opt-out feature that wasn’t spoken about in its blog post but was discovered a while after their initial announcement. You’ve most likely already accepting the terms without even looking at what you’re agreeing to and that’s fine. Once you’ve agreed to the new terms, you have 30 days to opt out of Facebook getting a hold of your phone number. Just go into WhatsApp’s Account settings. There you’ll see a box you can uncheck that reads “Share my account info”.