WhatsApp have pledged that registered phone numbers will not be shared with any individual, including those using Facebook. Nor will it sell, share, or give phone numbers to advertisers. But Facebook have plans to allow businesses to contact customers using WhatsApp in certain situations. These include a bank warning a customer about a possible fraudulent transaction for example, airlines letting a customer know about a delayed flight, or marketing messages for discounts. Other avenues could include using WhatsApp to provide receipts, confirm reservations, or update the status of a delivery. Companies may also be allowed to send marketing offers or messages about sales to individual customers. WhatsApp plans to allow users to control these types of communications and Facebook Messenger already allows similar communications. WhatsApp has also gone on record saying that it will continue to bar traditional display ads from its service and has emphasized that it does not want its customers to have a ‘spammy experience’.
WhatsApp phone numbers are valuable to Facebook who do not require users to provide updated phone numbers and consequently do not always have the most current phone number. This is a prerequisite with WhatsApp who would not be able to deliver messages without having up to date phone numbers. The targeted ads planned by Facebook would come through a program called ‘Custom Audiences’ which would allow a business to upload lists of customers, phone numbers, and other contact information they have collected from warranty cards and other sources. Facebook would then match the list to users with the same information and show them ads. Facebook have reaffirmed that they will not give out users’ information to advertisers.
The move shows a significant change of direction for WhatsApp which had earlier pledged to safeguard the privacy of more than a billion users around the world and continues to fight requests from authorities to hand over data. However, there will be an option for their users to opt out by hitting the “read more” box that appears at the bottom of the page when the updated terms and conditions appear. Clicking on it reveals a check box that says “Share my WhatsApp account information with Facebook.” Users simply have to uncheck it. The second method of ensuring information is not shared with Facebook is to go into WhatsApp’s settings menu, click on the ‘Account’ tab, and uncheck the box marked “Share my account info”.
Facebook have been examining ways of making money from WhatsApp since it bought the service two years ago in a huge deal worth $21.8 billion. Facebook has pledged not to interfere with a longstanding promise by WhatsApp’s co-founders to respect users’ privacy and keep ads off its messaging platform. The sharing of information between Facebook and WhatsApp could lead to possible action by privacy advocates and the Federal Trade Commission has already warned them publicly in a 2014 letter against changing how they employ WhatsApp data user data without the consent of the users. Facebook will also most likely be strictly monitored by data protection regulators in Europe who have more rigorous privacy rules and where Facebook is already being investigated and defending legal suits. Privacy advocates have conversely praised WhatsApp for its powerful encryption techniques that ensure users’ messages remain completely private, making it impossible for WhatsApp, Facebook, or anybody else from reading or using message content for advertising purposes.
WhatsApp has stated current users have up to 30 days to accept the new policy terms or stop using the service. Once they accept, they have 30 more days to opt out of sharing with Facebook. Total opting out of data sharing may not be possible. While users can avoid Facebook ad targeting, data will still be shared “for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities”. The only way to ensure data is not shared would be to stop using WhatsApp altogether and that is an implausible option for most users of the messaging service who depend on it.