As expected, privacy watchdogs have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook and the messaging app WhatsApp, acquired by the social networking company in 2014, for the recent decision to share information about WhatsApp's users.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy argue in a new FTC complaint that WhatsApp -- previously known for its stringent privacy practices -- is violating promises to its users.
A Facebook spokesperson says the company "complies with applicable laws" and "look(s) forward to
answering any questions regulators or other stakeholders have about this update.”
The complaint was triggered by WhatsApp's announcement last week that it will begin sharing data about users, including their phone numbers, with Facebook. The social networking service intends to use that information to make friend suggestions to WhatsApp users and to send them ads.
WhatsApp plans to 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 for other purposes.
The privacy advocates point out that WhatsApp promised users it would never share their personally identifiable information for ad purposes. What's more, when Facebook bought WhatsApp two years ago, the FTC specifically told Facebook not to retroactively loosen WhatsApp's privacy policies without its users' consent.
Given that history, Facebook's decision to scoop up data about WhatsApp's users amounts to a deceptive practice, the advocates say.
"WhatsApp previously collected phone numbers and other personal information from over one billion users before announcing its plan to transfer user data to Facebook," they allege. "WhatsApp will not obtain affirmative express consent from its users to use and disclose that data... Therefore, WhatsApp's proposed change in business practice constitutes a deceptive act or practice."
The groups want the FTC to investigate the companies and to prohibit WhatsApp from sharing data about users with Facebook without their express consent.