The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy — which filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month against Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of cross-platform messaging company WhatsApp, alleging that the privacy of current WhatsApp users will be affected by Facebook’s use of their information — filed an update with the FTC Friday, in response to a blog post by WhatsApp Co-Founder and CEO Jan Koum earlier this week.
The update, embedded below, contained press reports about the acquisition, reaction from commenters, and a plea that the commission examine the Facebook-WhatsApp deal with far greater scrutiny than it devoted to Google’s acquisition of home-thermostat manufacturer Nest in January.
Highlights of the filing by EPIC and the CDD include this report from Ars Technica:
Facebook draws legal complaints for treading outside the bounds of responsible data use on a fairly regular basis. There was Beacon, which posted users’ activity to third-party sites without so much as a heads up. There were sponsored stories, which placed users’ photos and names alongside ads. There was the sudden unsolicited use of facial recognition. The list goes on with many new and interesting ways Facebook has found to use the information it’s collected, but it’s plain that given an opportunity, Facebook is more likely to ask forgiveness than permission.
Facebook getting its hands on WhatsApp data is decidedly a privacy concern, but how immediate that concern is lies in how you interpret Koum’s post-sale blog post. The founder promised that “nothing” will change. In one sense, this means that WhatsApp will continue to keep customer phone numbers, metadata, and their contacts’ information off its servers, and it will continue to not store messages. In this case, Facebook will not actually have access to anything, because there are no logs.
However, Koum seemed mostly focused on the consumer end — how a user experiences the product — as opposed to how WhatsApp does business. Koum assured users that the experience will remain ad-free and operate on nominal fees. He also promised that WhatsApp will not “compromise on the core principles that will always define our company.” He did not specifically mention data collection or transmission.
As communications scholar and privacy blogger Nicholas John has pointed out, WhatsApp’s terms of service clarify that they don’t keep the contents of your messages: “Once a message has been delivered, it no longer resides on our servers,” the terms say. “The contents of any delivered messages are not kept or retained by WhatsApp.”
But they do keep your metadata: “WhatsApp may retain date and time-stamp information associated with successfully delivered messages and the mobile phone numbers involved in the messages, as well as any other information which WhatsApp is legally compelled to collect.”
John speculates that Facebook could use that information to figure out which of your friends you’re genuinely close to. That could be a big asset in the company’s quest to build the world’s most comprehensive social graph.
Ars Technica commenter DonColeman:
I don’t trust that the public statements of the executives of WhatsApp has any real legal force. I certainly feel tricked by WhatsApp — I chose them because they were independent, totally focused on messaging, with an income model that held the promise of working, and they promised to stay that way. As a person spending lots of time both in Europe and the U.S., I got all my regular U.S. contacts to install WhatsApp.
CNET commenter Neumenon:
Facebook has repeatedly made it very clear that your privacy is not their primary concern. Everyone should be crystal-clear about that.
CNET commenter usarloclave1:
For a large chunk of the companies online, their business model is selling information about you. So pretty much the only one who cares about your privacy is you.
Gizmodo commenter Susan Fourtané:
Facebook is not precisely a model on respecting users’ privacy. Facebook will use all the data it collects as it pleases to get a good ROI (return on investment) out of the $19 billion.
Ars Technica commenter Fatesrider:
Were I a WhatsApp user, I’d be bailing now. Facebook’s history with regard to all data it’s exposed to has ALWAYS been “begging for forgiveness rather than asking for permission.” Zuckerberg’s stated goals is to expose everything about everyone and his company has always acted toward that goal. Whether intentionally or with a level of privacy incompetence that makes the sinking of the Titanic sound like a case of it having a slight moisture problem, Facebook has always regarded all data as its own to do with as it will.
Now that WhatsApp has been sold to Facebook (or at least the deal is in the works), WhatsApp has absolutely no fiscal incentive to keep its user data private. Its privacy promise was its draw, but they’re not the owners anymore. Facebook is. And their stated, historical agenda has been to data-mine everything it is exposed to, whether people say it’s okay or not.
The financial incentive for Facebook is to use WhatsApp data to further its own business goals. And with its long, repeated and virtually unapologetic history of exposing its users’ data to the world, I don’t see how anyone using WhatsApp could possibly believe that their data is going to be kept private under Facebook’s ownership, or that it hasn’t already been compromised.
And Ars Technica commenter umaromc:
If nothing changes then what’s Facebook to gain from the purchase? I don’t believe it.
And on Google’s acquisition of Nest, EPIC and the CDD wrote:
The commission must review the Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp with more diligence than the commission review of Google’s acquisition of Nest.
The commission recently considered another merger that raised substantial privacy concerns for consumers but failed to give the matter adequate review.
On Jan. 13, Google announced its acquisition of Nest, a manufacturer of home thermostats programmed with machine learning algorithms that combine user-provided data with user behaviors to predict user preferences.
Readers: What are your thoughts on the latest FTC filing by EPIC and the CDD?