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Facebook's WhatsApp Data Gambit Faces Federal Privacy Complaint ( 94

Sam Gustin, writing for Motherboard: Facebook's decision to begin harvesting data from its popular WhatsApp messaging service provoked a social media uproar on Thursday, and prompted leading privacy advocates to prepare a federal complaint accusing the tech titan of violating US law. On Thursday morning, WhatsApp, which for years has dined out on its reputation for privacy and security, announced that it would begin sharing user phone numbers with its Menlo Park-based parent company in an effort "to improve your Facebook ads and products experiences." Consumer privacy advocates denounced the move as a betrayal of WhatsApp's one billion users -- users who had been assured by the two companies that "nothing would change" about the messaging service's privacy practices after Facebook snapped up the startup for a whopping $19 billion in 2014. "WhatsApp users should be shocked and upset," Claire Gartland, Consumer Protection Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading US consumer advocacy group, told Motherboard. "WhatsApp obtained one billion users by promising that it would protect user privacy. Both Facebook and WhatsApp made very public promises that the companies would maintain a separation. Those were the key selling points of the deal."
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Facebook's WhatsApp Data Gambit Faces Federal Privacy Complaint

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  • And the TOS certainly said that this could change at any time. In the US it's legal to be shady this way. Maybe it shouldn't be, but it's allowed. And I don't think there was much in terms of regulatory review of this deal where any explicit promises were made to government entities. I may be wrong here, but if I go double check I won't get a first post.
    • by Dex Hex ( 4678371 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @10:17AM (#52774543)

      Indeed. Including the magic clause "[company] may rewrite the terms of service from time to time, and it's the users responsibility to check the website periodically [...]" solves all future problems.

      I always believed that no court in the universe will find this valid. Are you sure it's allowed in the US?

      • by wendyo ( 168574 )

        If one side can do that, why can't the other? I occasionally rewrite the terms and it's up to them to check my website to see if I've changed them.

  • Pray (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 26, 2016 @10:08AM (#52774487)

    that I do not alter it further.

  • Facebook altered its Terms of Service to the detriment of it's user base in order to make more money. That's not news, it's a day at the office.
  • No problem here (Score:5, Interesting)

    by stevez67 ( 2374822 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @10:09AM (#52774497)

    They both had their fingers crossed when they made the privacy promises. But seriously, anyone who thought FB wasn't going to harvest data at some point from a company they bought was seriously mistaken.

    • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

      Yeah. Promise made in 2014? Two years is basically how long it takes for a business to decide "forever" is up and the statement/contract/promise no longer applies. I learned that twenty years ago when many of my "fixed rate for life" service deals expired around 48 months, and the companies would just say "we have no record of such a program" and refuse to honor it.

    • Mod parent up.

      Came here to say exactly this. We cannot afford to blindly accept EULAs anymore. Not that anyone wants to read 32 pages of legalese for every 1,000-lines of code app that comes along, but we now have to continuously monitor EULAs and TOSs for any deviation. And if we don't like them, and don't want to accept, are we honestly going to find alternatives with user-friendly licenses?

      It's like switching banks or cable companies, but worse. It can be such a pain in the ass to switch, but how are you

      • Re:No problem here (Score:4, Interesting)

        by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @12:00PM (#52775177) Journal
        It would be nice to set some legal ground rules for EULAs. Such as: they cannot be changed without prior notice, the text should fit on 4 A4-sized sheets in 12 point font, and you can only use the words in this dictionary ("the ten-hundred most used words").

        Last year I got a mortgage for a commercial property, and was pleasantly surprised by the terms and conditions: written in very plain and succinct language, and especially lacking in those unbelievable run-on sentences found in regular legalese. It is possible to write agreements that can actually be read and understood. Time to make that a requirement if companies want to have them legally enforced.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Don't stop at EULAs. Laws should be clear and concise as well. Strict rules on their length and format would be beneficial to society.

          • Not to lawyers though. Which is why that will never happen; they will not give up their role as high priests to the law.
  • Surprise!? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Knightman ( 142928 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @10:11AM (#52774511)

    Some people saw this coming when WhatsApp was sold.

    How do you think Facebook where going to recoup the money? By turning their users into a product they can sell of course.


    You shouldn't be, this how it works with social platforms; you aren't a user - you are a product.

    • by houghi ( 78078 )

      Just because nobody is surprised does not mean it is leagl. It just means the people suing had more time to prepare the lawsuit.

  • mandatory (Score:4, Funny)

    by sirber ( 891722 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @10:12AM (#52774517)
    just switch to linux!
  • Perhaps Facebook can tell us what Better User Experience they can create by mining the phone number of private, encrypted text messages?

    I've found that by replacing WhatsApp with Signal I have a far better user experience, namely my private communications remain private. I've already removed Facebook from my phone, I can use my laptop for the occasional checking up on what family and friends are doing

    • I wish there was a communication app that is both secure and widely used and DOES NOT REQUIRE A CRIPPLED COMPUTER (aka smartphone)

      Both whatsapp and signal require a smartphone as relay for their desktop version

      • Well, if the federal government forced on messaging systems a requirement to interchange with other messaging systems, then some of this may be reduced? Back in the 20th century this was done for the voice-landline networks and in many ways has resulted in the only non-fragmented, multi-vendor, communications system we have today. GSMA was formed because of the fragmentation of the analogue cellular networks at the time, but inherited to a certain extent the regulatory requirements to interconnect.

        XMPP held

        • by johanw ( 1001493 )

          I hope not, because then they would also demand it to be vulnerable to lawfull interception.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @10:40AM (#52774649) Journal
    It had a one year free use, and 1$ a year, 5$ for five year price back when it started. I am a paid user of WhatsApp. It has no right to share my phone number with facebook. I don't even have a face book page, I have taken steps to stay away from Linkedin and Facebook.

    Hope a paid alternative to WhatsApp emerges.

    • The thing is, if it is paid for, then most people will not use it. Yep, we are so cheap.

      As I already sold my soul to Google, I will keep using Hangouts.

  • If your policy violated the US privacy policies as a company that is that big, you know you fucked up.
    Or perhaps it is just greedy politicians that want extra money to change the law.

  • Their alleged claim of wanting to "improve your Facebook ads and products experiences" is pure bullshit... while this might be obvious to anyone who knows about Facebook's track record, the claim does not even withstand remotely objective scrutiny.

    Assume just for a moment that their claim of wanting to improve the user experience were true....Consider that Whatsapp has no information about the content of any messages sent between users, so any content within the messages that are sent cannot be harvested to generate any kind of targeted advertising, the *only* thing that they have are names and phone numbers, and who is sending messages to whom, with no basis for understanding why beyond anything that might have been communicated out of band directly to Whatsapp. So since Whatsapp has no information about its users that can be used to actually generate any kind of "improved advertising experience" for its users, the assumption that this is what they actually are trying to do cannot possibly be correct.

    There is nothing remotely tenable I can see about the notion that this could even somehow theoretically create an improved experience for the end user, and Facebook's claims that it would do so would seem to be wholly transparent lies.

    • by Sloppy ( 14984 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @12:55PM (#52775675) Homepage Journal

      When they talk about the "user experience" they mean someone who is buying ads, not the person who is posting "Look what Hillary Trump said last night" every day. Think in terms of Facebook's customers.

      Knowing who is talking to whom is an important part of Facebook's marketing. Look at how Facebook targets [] and consider item #19 in that article. It's not just about who you are, it's about who you know. Whether you think this is a good idea for Facebook or not, it is what they do.

      User A and user B are friends in real life, use Whatsapp, and have Facebook accounts -- but they're not "friends" on Facebook (maybe they only use Facebook for work, or something like that). (Or maybe they don't have Facebook accounts, but Facebook has profiles on them gathered by "like" buttons, and has some way to deliver ads to at least one of them.) They communicate with each other using Whatsapp. This lets Facebook connect the two profiles, even though within Facebook alone, they are unconnected. The result: Now user A can see shopping ads for user B's upcoming birthday.

      The advertiser has a good products experience.

      • by mark-t ( 151149 )
        Of course, but the advertisers, even if they are Facebook's actual customers, are still not "end users".
    • by sl3xd ( 111641 )

      Consider that Whatsapp has no information about the content of any messages sent between users, so any content within the messages that are sent cannot be harvested to generate any kind of targeted advertising, the *only* thing that they have are names and phone numbers, and who is sending messages to whom, with no basis for understanding why beyond anything that might have been communicated out of band directly to Whatsapp. So since Whatsapp has no information about its users that can be used to actually g

      • by mark-t ( 151149 )
        I was completely ignoring the issue of whether interfering with privacy is immorral or illegal. I was simply pointing out that there is no possible way that their claim of wanting to "improve [the user's] Facebook ads and products experiences" can be even remotely true. Whatsapp content is encrypted, end to end... so Whatsapp doesn't know anything about what is inside of it. Thus, that information cannot be harvested for data to determine what kinds of things people are talking about through the app, a
  • Centralized systems will always be ripe for abuse, it isn't question of IF, but WHEN your data will be harvested and profiled.

    The only feasible solution to combat this is distributed peer to peer implementations. Maybe good people at TOR project could take a short break from trying to save the world and build a privacy-conscious chat app for the masses?
  • Should read the fable, "Scorpion and the Frog". []
  • Public assurances, do not a legal action make.
  • A few months ago, I wanted to try whatsapp on Android. The app asked me for permission to dig into my contacts, which I refused.
    You can't do much without that permission: impossible to start a conversation, impossible to input a name for someone that started a conversation with you, impossible to add contacts by hand in whatsapp; it have to be in the phone contact's list.
    When I asked their support about this, they kindly redirected me to their FAQs, explained to me that they use phone numbers to identify
  • by Natales ( 182136 ) on Friday August 26, 2016 @02:51PM (#52776669)
    Since I don't use Facebook, my number should be irrelevant to them to serve me advertisement in their platform. Furthermore, I use the anti-social plugins for browsing so they don't get my browsing history either.

    If this really bothers you, Signal [] is a perfectly good alternative to WhatsApp, which is completely open source and with almost identical functionality. Another surprisingly good and also open source alternative is Wire [], which doesn't rely on phone numbers, and it's completely multiplatform.

    If you can't vote with your dollars, vote with your feet.
  • Then you're either not very smart, or you've been paying ZERO attention for the last decade or two.

    Facebook didn't buy Whatsapp because they like their logo - they bought them to monetize them somehow.
    The way Facebook USUALLY monetizes things is to learn as much about you as possible, and then sell ads targeting you.

    It's hardly surprising that Facebook would start to try to make use of any data that Whatsapp has. And remember that Facebook acts as though it things privacy is a thing for other people - not f

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