Privacy Advocates Prep FTC Complaint Against WhatsApp

When Facebook announced plans to purchase WhatsApp for $16 billion in 2014, the companies assured people that WhatsApp's stringent privacy practices would remain unchanged.

"Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible," the company's founder wrote two years ago in a blog post. "If partnering with Facebook meant that we had to change our values, we wouldn’t have done it."

Privacy advocates were skeptical of the deal, but it was cleared by the Federal Trade Commission. At the time, however, the FTC warned Facebook against loosening WhatsApp's privacy policies.

“WhatsApp has made a number of promises about the limited nature of the data it collects, maintains and shares with third parties -- promises that exceed the protections currently promised to Facebook users. We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honor these promises to consumers.” Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich wrote to the companies in 2014.

Rich told Facebook not to retroactively change WhatsApp's data policies without obtaining users' express consent. She also told Facebook not to draw on data it had collected about users for ad purposes, without their opt-in permission.

In her letter, Rich reminded Facebook that it was already subject to a consent decree that requires it to obtain users' express consent before sharing their information more broadly than its privacy policy allowed when users uploaded the data. Violations of that agreement could result in charges of $16,000 per instance.

Despite all that, WhatsApp said today it will begin sharing information about users, including their phone numbers, with Facebook. Facebook intends to draw on those phone numbers to make friend suggestions to WhatsApp users, and also send them ads, based on Facebook data. The company also will use phone numbers for other purposes, including analytics and fighting spam.

WhatsApp will let people opt out of receiving targeted ads (and receiving friend suggestions) based on phone numbers. But the company won't let people opt out of sharing their phone numbers with Facebook.

Privacy advocates are now accusing WhatsApp of reneging on its promises.

"We think this would violate the FTC's consent order with Facebook, and would be an unfair and deceptive trade practice," EPIC consumer protection lawyer Claire Gartland tells MediaPost.

EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg adds that his organization plans to ask the FTC to prohibit WhatsApp from moving forward with the planned changes.

For its part, WhatsApp says it complies with the law. "As always, we consider our obligations when designing updates like this," a spokesperson says. 

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