In a blog post on Thursday, WhatsApp made a very important announcement for its one billion users.
WhatsApp announced it will begin sharing data, including names and phone numbers with its parent company, Facebook, apparently ‘to communicate with businesses that matter to you’. Facebook acquired the 2009 founded messaging app in 2014, for $19 billion.
According to the blog post, by using WhatsApp’s data Facebook will be able to ‘offer better friend suggestions’, but more pertinently, will be able to further increase it’s ad services, “For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you’ve never heard of.”
Of course, Facebook won’t be able to read personal messages thanks to WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption that you’re constantly reminded of when in the app. However, it’s the metadata they’ll now receive that has concerned many users and technology observers alike.
People are outraged and shocked, but really they should be more surprised that it’s taken this long for Facebook to dig its talons in. Of course Facebook’s business model is based on advertising. The more data they have, the more sophisticated their offering is and thus can demand higher prices. Surely WhatsApp users saw this coming. Facebook of course make their acquisitions to enhance their technological monopoly, but data is always the key and proves the most worth.
What sms service are people switching to now it’s been revealed that WhatsApp is giving all our phone numbers to Facebook?
— Mark Ward (@mark_ward_) August 25, 2016
At the time of the Facebook acquisition, WhatsApp’s founder Jan Koum attempted to alleviate pressure about the future of the app’s privacy. “Above all else, I want to make sure you understand how deeply I value the principle of private communication,” said Koum in his 2014 blog post. He adds that he grew up in the USSR in the 1980’s and therefore, can appreciate the importance of privacy when it comes to communications. He continues, “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible… If partnering with Facebook meant that we had to change our values, we wouldn’t have done it.” Whilst it remains true, WhatsApp doesn’t know a great deal about its users, just like that statement about partnering with Facebook, the sentiment of respecting and caring about privacy is no longer the case.
— Greg Scoblete (@GregScoblete) August 25, 2016
For a long time Facebook has adjusted its policies, putting the business needs ahead of its users, from as early as 2007 when ads were first included on the social network site. In a technology world where advertising provides users free content, nobody would bemoan Facebook for adding tailored ads. But it was some of their other announcements and policy changes and the way they conducted themselves that were more controversial:
- In 2007 Facebook launch Beacon: a way to capture data from users’ third-party activity.
- In 2009, Facebook were sanctioned by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), for making information that was previously private, publicly available without warning.
- Again without warning, in 2012 Facebook performed a psychology experiment to see if it could manipulate users. For this the FTC were again involved, but no official sanction.
This latest controversy will of course attract the eyes of the FTC again as well as the ICO – the UK equivalent.
— Mr. Funk E. Dude (@MrFunkEdude) August 25, 2016
Technology companies incentive to uphold privacy as a key policy is to improve its user base figures, and grow a trusted relationship with them. However, even WhatsApp who have upheld the importance of privacy since inception, no longer needs to. WhatsApp announced their user-base is more than one billion this year and growing. Whilst of course there are many alternative messaging services, it seems WhatsApp’s dominance in the market is unrelenting. Now partnered with Facebook, a company that relies on user-data, it no longer makes sense to withhold such data for obvious business reasons.
What can Facebook actually gain from learning your phone number and name from your WhatsApp account? Other than announcing Facebook would use the WhatsApp data moving forward, the blog post specified WhatsApp wanted to interact and communicate with businesses more effectively. It seems a good ploy to announce now that Facebook would use their data whilst the data is relatively useless. If the most popular messaging service allows its users to communicate with airlines, banks, online shopping and others for example, Facebook, at some point in the near future, will know about this potentially lucrative monetizable data too.
If you don’t want this potential future data shared, they did announce you have 30 days to opt out, “If you are an existing user, you can choose not to share your account information with Facebook to improve your Facebook ads and products experiences.”
Of course you could always abandon using WhatsApp and Facebook. However, in a time where Facebook’s monopoly is ever-growing and anything you replace them with will have similar data sharing capabilities, it might be time to embrace and concede that privacy within online communications is a thing of the recent past.
Technological communication services, inclusive of Facebook-owned products are key to modern life. What is also key is that these services are free. If they are to remain free, then ads will continue to become more prominent and more sophisticated. If sharing simple data such as a phone number means the ads I see are more relevant then surely this is the best of a bad situation. It’s the underhand tactics Facebook and others take that is more concerning. The amount of information they hold about its users is creepy and particularly worrying if this begins to include more personal information than simply a profile of your like and dislikes.
Ultimately, the effect this announcement will have initially is minimal. However, it’s more the continually growing profiling giant technology companies such as Facebook are doing on its users and the potential lack of privacy that is most concerning.
Please note: Chances are, you’re reading this article after it was targeted to you using sophisticated targeting offered by Facebook. It’s probably too soon to say that WhatsApp data has had an effect, but watch this space, you might be hearing from TFNY on WhatsApp in the near future.