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Experts on WhatsApp privacy policy: Don’t worry about data sharing, look at fineprint on location and business messaging


Experts who have been studying WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy have underlined points that have so far not got the attention it deserves, especially around the changes in how the platform now identifies location and differentiates business messages.

“The main difference lies not in data sharing with Facebook, but in their clarification that IP and phone number information is used to estimate general location even if precise location sharing (using GPS, etc.) is disabled,” Pranesh Prakash, Affiliated Fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project and an independent tech policy researcher, explained to indianexpress.com over email. But fears that location data will be shared with Facebook are unfounded.

The new policy has resulted in a furore, with many expressing fears about the ‘increased’ data sharing with Facebook. It has also led to disinformation being spread against the messaging platform prompting WhatsApp to issue clarifications on social media and in newspapers.

One of the major changes in the policy relates to how users interact with 50 million-odd businesses using the platform. Some 15 million businesses are using the business feature in India. According to Kazim Rizvi, Founding Director at The Dialogue, a tech policy think-tank, the key difference here is that companies could use Facebook’s cloud server to host their customer interactions. “But the business using the API services and Facebook’s cloud infrastructure can instruct Facebook to use this data for running advertisements on the social network. It is important to note here that WhatsApp Business accounts can also host their chats on any other third party server. Facebook will not be the exclusive server hosting provider by default,” he added.

“The changes to share data with Facebook were brought in earlier. The significant changes brought about in this revision are to “Business Interactions” via WhatsApp and new provisions dealing with transactions and payments data,” said Prakash. The data sharing with Facebook in fact began in 2016, when the privacy policy was first updated. WhatsApp was bought out by Facebook back in 2014.

In Depth: Explained: How private is WhatsApp, what can Facebook see, and should you look at alternatives?

Some of the misinformation around WhatsApp’s new privacy policy claims that for users now sending a WhatsApp message and posting a Facebook message is the same thing. But as Prakash points out, these fears that WhatsApp can read a user’s message are unreasonable.

“One should also recall that end-to-end encryption was implemented by Facebook after its acquisition of WhatsApp, and thus they voluntarily decreased their ability to use message content for business purposes and targeting,” Prakash wrote. Incidentally, WhatsApp uses the same encryption protocol as Signal, the app that has gained a lot of traction in light of the new policy.

Read more: WhatsApp clarifies: Nothing changes for personal messages; but not same for business chats

There’s another fear that WhatsApp will now collect the data of all contacts in the address book, including those people who might not be using the platform and then share this data with Facebook. In fact, the opposite is happening. “Some kinds of data sharing with WhatsApp have even seemingly been tightened a bit, including sharing of contacts / address books, which now includes the language on pseudonymisation,” he said.

The relevant paragraph in the policy reads as follows: “If any of your contacts aren’t yet using our Services, we’ll manage this information for you in a way that ensures those contacts cannot be identified by us.”

In Rizvi’s view, the fact that WhatsApp will inform a user if they are chatting with a business entity that is using Facebook’s or a third party’s cloud infrastructure is critical. It lets the user know that chats could be processed by the third-party host (Facebook or any third party). “This is a standard practice followed by entities in the cloud servicing space. Users in such cases have the option of not engaging with a WhatsApp Business Account that is hosted on Facebook’s server,” he pointed out.

Read more: WhatsApp privacy policy update: Don’t fall for these false claims

Another concern that exists is around the integration of WhatsApp with other Facebook products such as Messenger, and Zuckerberg’s vision of interoperability. According to Prakash, interoperability will greatly benefit users, but only if it isn’t limited to Facebook company products. “True interoperability would mean that I can communicate with users on WhatsApp and Messenger using a third-party open source messaging app, and from within WhatsApp can message friends who don’t use WhatsApp but use a third-party messaging service,” he said.

This already exists with email. “Gmail users can send emails to Yahoo users using an open source email client like Thunderbird. And anyone can run their own own e-mail server, as I do,” Prakash pointed out.

So should users ditch WhatsApp and switch to Signal? “If you want a messaging app that doesn’t even know who is sending messages to whom, then Signal may well be appropriate for you. Though one needs a phone number to be associated with Signal to be able to use it, so it is not truly anonymous,” Prakash added, arguing that “Signal too is a ‘walled garden’ that doesn’t allow for interoperability.”

And while Signal is seeing an exodus of users, long-term success will depend on many factors. The biggest barrier Prakash sees is the network effect, meaning “people will use the networks that their peers use, rather than the ones they want to use.” In his view, unless there is a large exodus from WhatsApp, it will only result in people using multiple apps, all of which are ‘walled gardens’. He added that while it is “up to users to make choices based on their views on privacy, security, convenience,” decisions should not be “based on misinformation-fuelled fears and doubts.”



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