WhatsApp cannot share South African users’ contact information, says regulator

 ·4 Mar 2021

South Africa’s Information Regulator (IR) says that Facebook cannot share any contact information it collects from WhatsApp users in South Africa without first obtaining authorisation.

This comes after a January update in which WhatsApp informed users it was preparing a new privacy policy, under which it could share some data, including location and phone numbers, with Facebook, Reuters reported.

The IR said it has concerns about Facebook’s new privacy policy which forces WhatsApp users to accept the policy by 15 May or face losing functionality.

“WhatsApp cannot without obtaining prior authorisation from the IR process any contact information of its users for a purpose other than the one for which the number was specifically intended at collection, with the aim of linking that information jointly with information processed by other Facebook companies,” the regulator said in a statement on Wednesday (3 March).

It said that this is in line with the existing Protection of Personal Information Act rules.  The regulator has also written to Facebook South Africa and outlined its concerns about the company’s privacy policy.

Chairperson of the IR Pansy Tlakula said that the regulator is particularly concerned that citizens of the European Union will receive significantly higher privacy protection than people in South Africa and Africa generally.

“Our legislation is very similar to that of the EU. It was based on that model deliberately, as it provides a significantly better model for the protection of personal information than that in other jurisdictions,” Chairperson of the IR Pansy Tlakula said.

“We do not understand why Facebook has adopted this differentiation between Europe and Africa,” she said.

Planned changes still going ahead 

In February, WhatsApp indicated it will go ahead with its planned privacy policy changes, after listening to global backlash to the privacy policy update notification issued earlier this year.

In a statement published on its website, WhatsApp said that it had previously encountered a ‘great deal of misinformation’ about this update and said it will ‘continue to work hard’ to clear up any confusion.

“As a reminder, we’re building new ways to chat or shop with a business on WhatsApp that are entirely optional. Personal messages will always be end-to-end encrypted, so WhatsApp can’t read or listen to them.

“We’ve reflected on what we could have done better here. We want everyone to know our history of defending end-to-end encryption and trust we’re committed to protecting people’s privacy and security.”

The group said it will use its ‘status’ feature to share values and updates directly within WhatsApp.

“In the coming weeks, the group said it will display a banner in WhatsApp providing more information that people can read at their own pace.  WhatsApp said it has also included more information to try and address concerns its heard.

“Eventually, we’ll start reminding people to review and accept these updates to keep using WhatsApp.”

The company further stressed that WhatsApp and Facebook cannot read or listen to personal conversations as they are end-to-end encrypted.

Read: WhatsApp and Facebook could face government questioning in South Africa

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