Request to update WhatsApp's privacy policy on the smartphone screen in Brazil
Request to update WhatsApp's privacy policy on the smartphone screen in Brazil, the second largest app market in the world. Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin

Analysis: What changes in WhatsApp's new privacy policy

The app's ultimatum stirred users – also the ones in Brazil, its second-largest market worldwide. What exactly changes? Is it time to leave WhatsApp? Here, I try to answer these questions and others

Ler em português

After the controversy, WhatsApp postponed the beginning of its new privacy policy to May. In January, users received a warning when opening the application, saying that “After that date, you must accept the updates to continue using WhatsApp.” The ultimatum stirred users all around the world – including Brazil, the app’s second-largest market. What exactly changes? Is it time to leave WhatsApp? I try to analyze these and other issues in this text.

This new privacy policy is related to a Facebook announcement from October 2020, when the company presented news for the platform’s commercial accounts, those used by companies, from small businesses linked to WhatsApp Business to medium and large companies using APIs. The move is Facebook’s bet to monetize WhatsApp, which has never made a profit since it was bought in 2014 for almost US$ 20 billion.

With this change, companies can outsource the storage and management of messages exchanged with customers. Facebook or other expert companies can take care of that. This is not yet happening – the new privacy policy came to regulate this new scenario, changing some app-related guarantees.

One of the biggest changes is end-to-end encryption. It will continue the same in groups and private conversations but will cease to exist in conversations with business accounts that have hired a company to store and manage messages – after all, there will be a third party reading/storing/managing that conversation. Besides, the content of these conversations may be used by companies to target ads on other Facebook platforms, such as Instagram. All of this is explained in this Facebook post.

What about sharing data with Facebook?

This change has serious consequences, and we can understand the uproar, but another point of the new privacy policy reverberated more: the use of WhatsApp data to target ads and personalize the user experience on other Facebook platforms, such as Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook itself.

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Many people were amazed. In fact, it is surprising, considering the volume of WhatsApp data that Facebook already uses to improve its algorithms (See here). The company already does this on the web, extracting data from websites you visit and other applications, through its SDK, a type of code that facilitates the use of resources such as, for example, Facebook’s own login to applications.

For many users, data transfer from WhatsApp to Facebook has been going on since 2016. At the time, Facebook broke its promise and warned that it would cross WhatsApp data with its other services. Users who did not want this could say no. But everyone who didn’t say no (“opt-out,” which means that doing nothing is accepting the change) or who created their WhatsApp accounts later had their WhatsApp data crossed with other Facebook platforms.

This option was not offered this time. Facebook assured in a statement sent to the PCMag that it will respect the choice of users who said no to sharing their data in 2016. The privacy policy has legal value; however, a statement for a website does not. So, it is up to each user to trust a company that, remembering, has a history of cheating and broken promises.

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In the European Union, which fined Facebook € 110 million in 2019 for lying about WhatsApp’s personal data sharing, the app’s data will not be crossed. But despite this, European users report that they received the same warning about the change. In fact, Facebook executives have spoken out on the matter to calm things down.

Did it get worse?

Unlike what Facebook has touted, as in this infographic and public demonstrations by its executives, the new privacy policy appears to be actually worse than the old one.

According to the new text, more user data will be collected, such as the battery charge level, the mobile operator, the internet signal’s quality, and identifiers from Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. Besides, location data will also be recorded, even when the user does not use location-related features. None of these items were part of the previous privacy policy.

Photo: WhatsApp

But the worst aspect of the new privacy policy concerns the relationship with companies, since it will allow greater targeting of ads on Facebook and Instagram. And, this is perhaps the most damaging effect related to this new WhatsApp privacy policy, since it is an official exception to end-to-end encryption, standardized and mandatory until now. Let’s see what exactly the text says: 

“When you message with a business on WhatsApp, keep in mind that the content you share may be visible to several people in that business. In addition, some businesses might be working with third-party service providers (which may include Facebook) to help manage their communications with their customers. For example, a business may give such third-party service provider access to its communications to send, store, read, manage, or otherwise process them for the business. To understand how a business processes your information, including how it might share your information with third parties or Facebook, you should review that business’ privacy policy or contact the business directly.”

WhatsApp users who are concerned – whether because of the volume of data shared with other Facebook apps, or because of the new privacy policy – are correct. It’s good that we are all paying attention to this and doing something about it.

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In the end, these changes in WhatsApp’s privacy policy became the best advertisement for rivals like Telegram and Signal. Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder, said that demand for the app has increased like never before, with 25 million new users, reaching 500 billion users. Signal had to deal with system problems because of the high volume of downloads in the last few days.

Some misinformation and misunderstanding are circulating about WhatsApp changes, but all the fuss is justified. If you have the option, use Signal or use Telegram.

Translated by Carolina Pompeo.

This article was originally published (in Portuguese) on the blog Manual do Usuário