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article imageWhatsApp breaks its promise, starts sharing data with Facebook

By James Walker     Aug 26, 2016 in Technology
WhatsApp is facing a huge backlash after breaking a promise it made two years ago. When it was bought by Facebook, it pledged not to share user data with its new parent. Now, it's reversed that policy and will soon share data to power ads.
WhatsApp announced the controversial change in a blog post. It revealed it is updating its terms of use and privacy policy for the first time in four years. It said the new terms "reflect" how it has joined Facebook, as well as the introduction of new features such as end-to-end encryption and WhatsApp calling.
The company will "coordinate more with Facebook" in the coming months. While WhatsApp said it will not ever share your WhatsApp number with advertisers, it admitted it will start tracking "basic metrics" about how people use WhatsApp. Encrypted messages will stay private but your account as a whole will become a little more public.
WhatsApp tried to put a positive spin on the unpopular changes, noting that connecting your phone number with Facebook allows Facebook to offer better friend suggestions. However, this is exactly the kind of data sharing that WhatsApp pledged it wouldn't engage in. A few lines later, it admitted that WhatsApp user data will be used by Facebook to "show you more relevant ads."
The news has caused outrage amongst WhatsApp users. The company has previously been praised for its approach to security and privacy. However, analysts and users have long speculated that today's announcement was inevitable after WhatsApp joined Facebook. Over the past couple of years, WhatsApp has got progressively closer to its parent.
WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are becoming more like sisters than cousins. The two apps now have a very similar feature set, both including calling, chat, photo sharing and a myriad of mobile and desktop clients. WhatsApp and Facebook are both working on emerging messaging technologies, such as services to communicate with businesses and automated bots. It has become increasingly clear that Facebook is no longer content to let WhatsApp operate of its own accord.
Before that can happen, Facebook needs to be able to tie your Facebook and WhatsApp data together to form a single profile. It looks set to gradually merge the two accounts, linking more and more data. Ads you see on Facebook will be determined by your WhatsApp preferences. Friend suggestions will be made based on WhatsApp contacts. For WhatsApp users who aren't active on Facebook, there appears to be no obvious benefit, however.
The Guardian collated a series of responses to the news. Twitter has been ablaze with angry messages directed at Facebook and WhatsApp. There are the inevitable reports of people already abandoning WhatsApp for rival services. "WhatsApp just lost a user," wrote one Reddit user. "Was just a matter of time once the FB acquisition went through. Guess it’s time to finally give Telegram a whirl."
The problems run deeper than user discontent as there are allegations that Facebook is actually breaking the law. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, explained to The Guardian that Facebook appears to be backtracking on an agreement made with the FTC in 2012.
That agreement requires Facebook to obtain explicit consent from its users before changing settings that directly affect the privacy of their information. Facebook appears to be making a blatant violation of that term. Rotenberg urged the FTC to take action against the company, stating "it's absurd that a company can disregard a legal judgement."
For WhatsApp users, the damage has already been done, however. In its announcement, the company tried to make it sound as if the move will be positive for the community. However, fears of such a blog post have been present since the day WhatsApp joined Facebook.
"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," said the WhatsApp Team. "As always, we look forward to your feedback and thank you for using WhatsApp."
The statement hasn’t won back suddenly disillusioned users. The company has destroyed the respect its customers once held for it, going back on a promise that many thought was always too good to be true. Facebook has a track record of ignoring privacy best-practices and it wasn’t going to let WhatsApp keep operating on its own for long.
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