OPINION: WhatsApp has been sharing certain information with Facebook since 2016. However, WhatsApp does not look at your chat messages or listen to your phone calls as this is protected by end-to-end encryption. What this means is that, when you send a WhatsApp message from your phone, it gets completely jumbled, and the only person with the key to unscramble the message, is the person that the message was sent too. If the message was intercepted by Facebook, they will not be able to see the content because of the encryption.

Despite this, hysteria has unfolded as WhatsApp, through an in-app alert, informed users of the new change including mention of how WhatsApp partners with Facebook. An ultimatum was given to users to delete their account if they chose not to agree to the new terms. This has led people to believe that they were being coerced into new, more invasive terms.

The frenzy is largely unfounded as it is not unusual for a company to request a client to agree to its terms and conditions in order to use their platform. WhatsApp users do not pay for the use of the app with money, it is paid with the information users give them. Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, and to recover this cost, they must increase data sharing between the Facebook entities.

WhatsApp data that is already shared with Facebook includes:

  • phone number and other information provided on registration (such as name);
  • information about your phone, including make, model, and mobile company;
  • your IP address, which indicates the location of your internet connection; and
  • any payments and financial transactions made over WhatsApp (not available in South Africa).

However, this data sharing does not apply in Europe and the UK, where different privacy laws exist. What is the South African Government doing to protect South Africans’ privacy? Was the POPI Act a waste of time and resources? The POPI Act has been a long time coming and is finally effective in June 2021. The challenge will be to get big-tech like Facebook to consider SA Law as they have the stance that since they are based in the US, the US laws apply. It is going to take some litigating and some muster from the data protection commissioners in SA to try hold Facebook accountable.

In a recent statement released by WhatsApp, it was confirmed that with the new update, none of the data sharing is changing. Instead, the update includes new options people will have to message a business on WhatsApp and provides further transparency about how WhatsApp collect and use data. While not everyone shops with a business on WhatsApp today, it is believed that more people will choose to do so in the future and its important people are aware of these services.

This whole controversy may be due to users misreading confusing media reports and jumping to conclusions. However, it is also a reality that the lack of trust in WhatsApp is directly related to years of bad faith privacy initiates from Facebook and complex terms of service agreements that are difficult to understand.

Following the backlash, tens of millions of confused and angered users have flocked to other platforms such as Signal and Telegram. Facebook and WhatsApp face a long road of transparent communication and trust-building ahead if they want to get those people back.

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By Christine Schutte