What’s up with WhatsApp?

  • February 27, 2021
  • Nevethan Balendra

Does the average user fully read the privacy policies or the terms and conditions of the apps that they use? If you said “no”, or “probably not”, you would be correct.[1] However, this does not mean that users are carefree about what happens with their data. This is evidenced by the uproar surrounding WhatsApp’s recent changes to their Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.[2]

Released in 2009, WhatsApp has become a household name over the past decade. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook Inc. and is popular as a cross-platform end-to-end encrypted messaging and voice-over-IP service. On January 6, 2021, WhatsApp announced that it would update its Privacy Policy to help it better integrate with other Facebook products, making sharing information with Facebook mandatory for WhatsApp users. This prompted many responses online calling for users to leave WhatsApp and to use more “privacy friendly” messaging apps, such as Telegram and Signal—the same Signal used and endorsed by the likes of Edward Snowden, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk. As a result of this public outcry, the implementation of WhatsApp’s new Privacy Policy was pushed back from February 8, 2021 to May 15, 2021.

Privacy vs. Security

It is important to note the difference between “privacy” and “security”, which are often used interchangeably. Security involves protecting personal information, primarily from breaches and leaks where there is unauthorized access to data. Privacy involves the collection, use, and access of data as well as how it is processed, stored, and transmitted. Although security was not the primary concern of the backlash, WhatsApp has been reassuring customers that their personal conversations will remain protected by end-to-end encryption, stating that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see a user’s personal messages, hear their calls, or see a user’s shared location.[3]

The below chart summarizes the difference between the privacy and security features on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal:

 

WhatsApp vs Telegram vs Signal

 

WhatsApp[4]

Telegram[5]

Signal[6]

End-to-end encryption

Yes

Yes, but only for secret chat

Yes

Ads

No

No

No

Information linked to the user

Phone number

Screen name

Contacts

Usage and Log Information

Device and Connection Information

Location Information

Transactions and Payments Data

Customer Support and Other Communications

Phone number

Screen name

Contacts

Username

 

Phone number

Impact of WhatsApp’s New Privacy Policy

What will change is the way customers communicate with businesses on the app. WhatsApp will give businesses the option to use Facebook hosting services to manage their communications.[7] The businesses may then store information for marketing purposes including advertising on Facebook.[8] Additionally, if a user discovers a business through Facebook which has a link to its WhatsApp account, Facebook may use that interaction to personalize the user’s ads on Facebook.[9] WhatsApp has stated that whether this affects a user is completely optional, as the user can choose whether or not to contact businesses through the app.[10]

WhatsApp also states that the new Terms of Service does not expand the company’s ability to share user-data with Facebook.[11] In truth, a lot of information is already being shared, such as a user’s account registration information, transaction data, information on how they interact with businesses using WhatsApp, information about a user’s mobile device, IP address, and so on.[12] Users do not have any other choice if they want to continue using WhatsApp, and must accept these changes.[13]

Impact on Canadian Users

These new incoming policies do not apply globally. Europe and the UK will see smaller changes as a result of strict privacy laws developed by the European Union.[14] The US and Canada, however, will be exposed to the new policy in its entirety. So where does this leave us Canadians, and what can we do? Under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), users have the right to access their personal information held by an organization, and a limited right to request deletion where the personal information is inaccurate or outdated.   

In November 2020, Bill C-11, also known as the Digital Charter Implementation Act, 2020, (the “Act”) was tabled.[15] The Act proposes to enact the Consumer Privacy Protection Act (CPPA) to replace Part 1 of PIPEDA. The CPPA, if passed, will grant individuals clear rights to have their personal information disposed of upon request, and will generally create a more robust privacy regime, with stronger enforcement tools, that aims to meaningfully enhance privacy protections for individuals.

The reactions of millions and the endorsement of messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram by media, government, and celebrities worldwide demonstrate that consumers have a strong voice in how their data is being managed. These shifts in both user attitude and legislation mark a huge step forward in the fight for data control and data processing.

 

[1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2757465

[2] https://blog.whatsapp.com/giving-more-time-for-our-recent-update

[4] https://www.whatsapp.com/legal/updates/privacy-policy/?lang=en

[5] https://telegram.org/privacy

[6] https://signal.org/legal/

[7] https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/answering-your-questions-about-whatsapps-privacy-policy?ref-banner

[8] https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/answering-your-questions-about-whatsapps-privacy-policy?ref-banner

[9] https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/answering-your-questions-about-whatsapps-privacy-policy?ref-banner

[10] https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/were-updating-our-terms-and-privacy-policy?ref-banner

[11] https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/were-updating-our-terms-and-privacy-policy?ref-banner

[12] https://faq.whatsapp.com/general/security-and-privacy/what-information-does-whatsapp-share-with-the-facebook-companies

[13] https://techcrunch.com/2021/02/19/whatsapp-details-what-will-happen-to-users-who-dont-agree-to-privacy-changes/; https://www.pcmag.com/news/what-happens-if-you-dont-accept-whatsapps-new-privacy-policy

[14] https://globalnews.ca/news/7570323/whatsapp-facebook-privacy-policy-explained/

[15] https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/43-2/bill/C-11/first-reading

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