What South Africans should know about the changes to WhatsApp: legal expert

Facebook-owned messaging giant, WhatsApp, sparked a public outcry this past week due to an update to its terms and privacy policy.

The privacy policy update relates to how it processes the data of users, how businesses can utilise Facebook services to store their business chats, and who partners with Facebook to offer integration across all Facebook products, says Ahmore Burger-Smidt, director at law firm Werksmans.

Users who voiced displeasure about the app’s changed policies are rife, and social media relating to personal data/information being misused is increasing.

However, Burger-Smidt said that the outcry might not be entirely justified, further explaining the changes and what they will mean for the average WhatsApp user.

WhatsApp security and privacy

WhatsApp is the largest messaging service in the world with over two billion monthly active users. Since its origins in 2009, it has prided itself on its commitment to security and privacy with encrypted conversations and other important technologies integrated into the app.

This is demonstrated by WhatsApp’s latest privacy policy dated February 2021 which, amongst others, states that:

Your messages. We do not retain your messages in the ordinary course of providing our Services to you. Instead, your messages are stored on your device and not typically stored on our servers. Once your messages are delivered, they are deleted from our servers.

“In addition to the above, the WhatsApp privacy policy states that WhatsApp and other third parties cannot read the messages of its users due to the built-in end-to-end encryption,” said Burger-Smidt.

“Also, WhatsApp cannot decrypt the contents of a user’s profile contents, that being messages, calls and photos. This means that WhatsApp does not store personal information i.e. the content of your messages as such, and deletes your messages on their servers immediately.”

Burger-Smidt said that WhatsApp does have access to metadata, IP addresses, profile pictures, status updates and user contact information.

Whilst metadata does not allow anyone to read a user’s messages, it allows for transparency as to who and when you have messaged someone and for how long.

The changes to WhatsApp privacy

In essence, the new changes to WhatsApp terms and privacy policy relate to how WhatsApp will share information within the Facebook group of companies and how any shared information will be used. These key updates relate to:

  • WhatsApp’s service and how it processes your data;
  • How businesses can use Facebook-hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats; and
  • How WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integrations across Facebook’s product portfolio.

“It is important to note that the information collected by WhatsApp is not the ‘chats’ of its users, as these are encrypted and therefore cannot be seen by the company,” said Burger-Smidt

“To the contrary, the information relates to personal data such as phone numbers of users (and their contacts, if the contacts make use of WhatsApp), profile names, pictures and diagnostic data.”

The updated privacy policy makes it clear how WhatsApp will shares data with the Facebook family of apps for better advertising targeting, she said.

“The fear is that this gives Facebook even more incentive to monetise user WhatsApp data. Statements have been made by many that the update of WhatsApp privacy policy will now enforce sharing of data from WhatsApp to Facebook and even that WhatsApp will completely invade user privacy.”

It’s about business

Burger-Smidt said that WhatsApp has added new features to allow people to communicate with businesses – and those businesses could be hosted by Facebook.

“Businesses making use of the WhatsApp platform will be able to make use of Facebook services to store the business – customer chats.”

“However, users should be informed if that happens by the specific business. When speaking to a business who has decided to have its messages managed by Facebook, a message should appear – and users should stop engaging with the specific business if they would prefer that information not be managed by Facebook,” she said.

Burger-Smidt said that going forward, there will be even greater integration between WhatsApp and Facebook’s other products like Instagram and Messenger.

This means that they will share data like your phone number, transaction data, IP address and information on how you interact with businesses.

What exactly does this sharing of personal information between Facebook companies actually entail?

The WhatsApp privacy policy states that this entails, amongst others, –

  • Helping improve infrastructure and delivery systems;
  • Understanding how the WhatsApp or Facebook services are used;
  • Promoting safety, security and integrity across all Facebook company products;
  • Improving services and user experience such as personalising features and contents, helping users to complete purchases and transactions and showing relevant offers and advertisements across the Facebook company products; and
  • Providing integrations which enable users to connect WhatsApp with other Facebook company products. For example, allowing users to connect Facebook Pay account to pay for things on WhatsApp.

“So yes, advertising directed at a user specifically is possible and certain information will be shared to achieve that,” Burger-Smidt said.

Cosmetic changes

WhatsApp supports more than 50 million WhatsApp business app users.

To help them and the thousands of larger businesses on the WhatsApp business API get discovered, the company is introducing these new features to start a chat with a business on WhatsApp to see what goods and services they offer, Burger-Smidt said.

“The update to the WhatsApp privacy policy is cosmetic in nature and to a large extent aimed to allow people to communicate with businesses – which businesses are offered through WhatsApp and hosted by Facebook.

“Also, when messages are conversed with those business accounts, they might be stored and managed by Facebook at the election of the specific business.

“Data privacy laws across the world require clear and transparent communications with data subjects. Are we blaming WhatsApp for updating their communication so that users know what is happening in the background?”

Read: Users will be blocked from using WhatsApp unless they agree to Facebook privacy changes

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What South Africans should know about the changes to WhatsApp: legal expert