The abuse of WhatsApp’s privacy update resulted in widespread confusion and misinformation. In reality, after being acquired by Facebook, WhatsApp has shared some information about its users with Facebook since 2016.
But the backlash is a solid indication of a lot of user trust that Facebook has since wasted. People immediately suspected the worst and millions fled to alternative messaging apps like Signal and Telegram.
After the outcry, WhatsApp tried to explain that the privacy update was actually focused on optional business features in the app that would allow a company to see the content of messages between them and the end user and to give the companies permission to use that information for their own marketing purposes, including advertising on Facebook. WhatsApp also marks conversations with companies that use Facebook hosting services to manage their chats with customers so that users become aware of it.
In the weeks since the debacle, WhatsApp has spent time collecting user feedback and listening to concerns from people in different countries. The company found that users wanted to be sure that WhatsApp was not reading their private messages or listening to their conversations, and that their communications were encrypted throughout. Users also said they wanted to know that WhatsApp doesn’t keep logs of who notifies them or shares contact lists with Facebook.
These latter concerns seem to be justified as Facebook recently made its messaging systems interoperable for Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. One has to wonder when similar integrations will find their way to WhatsApp.
WhatsApp announced today that it will provide new notices to users about the privacy update that follows the status update offered in January to help clear up any confusion (see below).
When users click Review, they’ll see a more in-depth summary of the changes, including additional details on how WhatsApp works with Facebook. The changes emphasize that WhatsApp updates do not affect the privacy of user conversations and repeat the information about the optional business features.
Finally, WhatsApp will remind users to review and accept the updates in order to keep using WhatsApp. According to prior announcement, the new policy will not be enforced until May 15th.
Users still need to be aware that their corporate communications are not as secure as their private messages. This affects a growing number of WhatsApp users, 175 million of whom are now communicating with businesses through the app, WhatsApp said in October.
In today’s blog post about the changes, WhatsApp also struck a huge blow to competing messaging apps that took advantage of the confusion over the privacy update to attract WhatsApps fleeing users by touting the privacy of their own app.
“We saw some of our competitors trying to pretend that they couldn’t see people’s messages. If an app doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default, it means they can read your messages,” so read WhatsApps blog post.
This appears to be a comment specifically aimed at Telegram and often touting the “heavily encrypted” messaging app as a more private alternative. However, Telegram does not offer end-to-end encryption by default, like apps like WhatsApp and Signal do. It uses “transport-layer” encryption that protects the connection from the user to the server, an article by Wired discussing cybersecurity experts in January. If users want an end-to-end encrypted experience for their one-on-one chats, they can turn on the Secret Chats feature instead. (And this feature isn’t even available for group chats.)
Additionally, WhatsApp resisted the characterization that it is somehow less secure because it has limited data on users.
“Other apps say they are better because they know even less information than WhatsApp. We believe people are looking for apps that are both reliable and secure, even when WhatsApp has limited data, ”the post said. “We try to be thoughtful in our decisions, and we will continue to develop new ways of fulfilling that responsibility with less information, not more,” he said.