Facebook halts WhatsApp data collection in UK following privacy probe

WhatsApp read receipts

As of late-August 2016, WhatsApp has been sharing account data with Facebook in what the firm framed as an effort to improve targeted advertising on the social network. Although users can easily opt out of the WhatsApp → Facebook data sharing with just a few taps, most novice users are unaware that their WhatsApp usage data is being shared with Facebook.

In the United Kingdom, the Information Commissioner Office head Elizabeth Denham said her office had launched a probe into WhatsApp’s updated Terms of Service a few weeks ago.

The new terms previously drew ire from European privacy watchdogs who expressed “serious concerns” over the policy change. As a result of the UK government probe, WhatsApp has now suspended account data collection and sharing with Facebook.

Like many users, the Information Commissioner Office wants to know precisely why Facebook needs to collect phone numbers, profile names and photos, online statuses and last seen timestamps of WhatsApp users.

The office is now eight weeks into the probe, said Denham.

TUTORIAL: how to opt out of WhatsApp-Facebook account data sharing

“I had concerns that consumers weren’t being properly protected, and it’s fair to say the enquiries my team have made haven’t changed that view,” Denham wrote.

“I don’t think users have been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with their information, and I don’t think WhatsApp has got valid consent from users to share the information.”

WhatsApp originally informed all WhatsApp users about the changed terms and updated privacy policy via a prompt within the messaging app. The prompt also offered users to opt out of data sharing, but only within 30 days of accepting the new terms.

But in Denham’s view, “users should be given ongoing control over how their information is used, not just a 30 day window.” It’s unclear how all of this is going to affect Facebook’s European users but the firm’s definitely stopped using WhatsApp data for “advertisements or product improvement purposes” in the United Kingdom.

How to opt out of WhatsApp Facebook account sharing screenshot 001

“We think consumers deserve a greater level of information and protection, but so far Facebook and WhatsApp haven’t agreed,” said Denham, before issuing this thinly veiled threat: ”If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, it may face enforcement action from my office,” she said.

WhatsApp founder Jan Koum told The Financial Times newspaper that his app “is not sitting on a wealth of information about its users, whose messages and calls are protected by end-to-end encryption.”

The firm, he said, “does not even know their names or gender.”

Just recently, Facebook was forced to stop sucking data from WhatsApp users in Germany and may be on the hook for the same thing in France and Italy where its data-sharing practices are now being scrutinized by watchdogs.

Source: Information Commissioner Office