WhatsApp to share customer data with Facebook

WhatsApp will now share the phone numbers of customers with its parent company, Facebook. The move has prompted concerned looks from those who once celebrated the company for its high standards of privacy.

Some think this alliance will compromise the famously strong privacy protections that WhatsApp allows
Some think this alliance will compromise the famously strong privacy protections that WhatsApp allows

WhatsApp has announced it will be sharing customer data with its parent company Facebook. The private messaging service announced the move yesterday on its blog, notifying customers of an update to its privacy policy.

The shared data will be used to enhance targeted ads. The service claims that by sharing info with Facebook, it will be all the more able to fight spam and deliver ads tailored to customers, issuing an official statement saying: “by connecting your phone number with Facebook's systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them”.

Whether WhatsApp will send its users adverts directly is not yet known; Steven Sammut, COO at HAUD thinks it may well happen. He told SCMagazineUK.com: “The announcement that WhatsApp will begin to share more data with Facebook to allow companies to send messages to users is something that mobile operators should keep tabs on, as most have successfully carved out considerable revenue streams from allowing organisations to quickly and reliably reach key consumer audiences.”

“It will take a lot to dislodge SMS's position as a vital ubiquitous delivery road for A2P messages. This new WhatsApp functionality could, however, increase the volumes by bringing in traffic that would otherwise use other routes such asemail. WhatsApp will probably take a slice of the cake, but it may also bring more cake to the party.”

This might be seen as a strange move for a company that has such a good reputation for protecting the privacy of its customers. Earlier this year, WhatsApp was lauded for rolling out end-to end encryption on the service, putting private correspondence beyond the reach of the government, unwelcome intruders and even WhatsApp itself .The disclosing blog post assured customers that, “our belief in the value of private communications is unshakeable, and we remain committed to giving you the fastest, simplest, and most reliable experience on WhatsApp”

It wasn't long before the charges of heresy started rolling in. Gizmodo's Will Turton wrote shortly after the disclosure that “this very obviously betrays WhatsApp's commitment to privacy that it has long held. In case you'd forgotten, Facebook wants to collect as much data as possible about you, so that it can use it to sell more expensive ads and make more money. That's the company's stated business model”

When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, concerns were raised that the data-eating social media behemoth might pervert the lofty goals of WhatsApp. The app's founder, Jan Koum sought to dispel fears that the service would be compromised. He said in another blogpost: “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible”

Norman Shaw, CEO of ExactTrak told SC that he too laments this move: “Sadly, this is another, classic example of loss of control of your private information. What was a really good person-to-person contact app has been hijacked not because it extends functionality but solely due to the huge quantity of users it provides. Facebook revenue comes from advertising so the millions of WhatsApp users can now look forward to being bombarded with lots of mindless rubbish. Facebook will say that ittargets information that may be of interest.”

Maybe, added Shaw “it's time to look for a WhatsApp alternative that might charge a very small fee for an advert-free service in order to protect your private information.”

Richard Patterson, Director at Comparitech.com had some slightly more cutting words for the development.

He told SC: “You can almost imagine the boardroom discussion: “Sure, this will get us a bit of bad press but it will blow over; yes, we'll lose a few users but 99.9% of our customers won't give up WhatsApp and this will make us a truck load more money, so let's do it. We'll put out some story about how this will improve user experience and how seriously we take our customers privacy; and all but a few die hard privacy nuts will have forgotten about it by the end of the month.”

‘Users should also be wary that any move which makes the criminal's job easier, i.e combining your mobile number with a Facebook account should be regarded with much care as cyber criminals will have an easier route to compromising users and stealing their identities.

WhatsApp did not respond for comment.