Journal of Information & Privacy Law

Facebook, WhatsApp, and What’s Left of Your Privacy

By Adam Florek, Staff Editor on Thursday, March 6th, 2014
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WhatsApp is a cross platform messaging service that allows users to send instant messages from their wireless enabled device.  Though WhatsApp has a range of features, its primary purpose is that of an instant messaging service.  WhatsApp has made headlines recently after it was acquired by Facebook for the staggering sum of $19 billion.  This acquisition has privacy advocates clamoring because WhatsApp is directly tethered to a user’s mobile device, allows for real time GPS tracking, and is seen as a PRIVATE messaging client.

WhatsApp’s Terms of Use have a very user-friendly privacy policy.  WhatsApp alleges to only collect the bare minimum amount of user information, primarily a user’s address book, so that WhatsApp can perform its intended function.  WhatsApp explicitly states that it does not store any user communications after they are delivered and that any personally identifying information is retained only in connection with providing its stated service.  WhatsApp explicitly states, “We do not use your mobile phone number or other Personally Identifiable Information to send commercial or marketing messages without your consent or except as part of a specific program or feature for which you will have the ability to opt-in or opt-out.”

The WhatsApp Terms of Service, however, is vastly different from Facebook’s agreement.  Facebook is notorious for its privacy policies, allowing users to throttle how much information they allow others to see but limiting what can be restricted and retaining the information indefinitely once it has been placed on Facebook’s servers.  Moreover, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has never had the most pro-privacy outlook; early on, he made statements belittling Facebook users for trusting him with their data.  Today, Zuckerberg’s outlook on user privacy sounds in hypocrisy.  While he demands to be left alone, he consistently makes it more difficult for users to limit what can be seen by the public or deleted from Facebook once it has been posted, even going so far as to post user photos inside advertisements.

It remains to be seen whether Facebook will uphold WhatsApp’s superior privacy protections or, if WhatsApp will simply be another avenue for Facebook to aggregate user data in an effort to generate ad revenues.  If Facebook brings WhatsApp’s privacy terms in line with Facebook’s existing Terms of Service, it is likely that user data will no longer be immediately erased from WhatsApps servers and instead will be aggregated and distributed to existing Facebook profiles to create a more appealing profile for potential advertisers.

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