WhatsApp: Let us share your data with Facebook or else

For now, there appears to be no way to opt out.

Thomas White / Reuters

In a surprise move, WhatsApp recently gave many of its users a difficult choice: they could either accept a revised privacy policy that explicit allowed the service to share information with parent company Facebook by February 8th, or decline and risk not being able to use the service at all.

The company informed those users through an in-app notification which lays out the changes in very broad terms: the updates to the policy include “more information about WhatsApp’s service and how we process your data, how businesses can use Facebook hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats, [and] how we partner with Facebook to offer integrations across the Facebook Company Products.”

Upon further inspection, the updated policy makes clear that data collected by WhatsApp — including user phone numbers, “transaction data, service-related information, information on how you interact with others (including businesses) when using our Services , mobile device information, your IP address” and more are subject to be shared with other properties owned and controlled by Facebook.

“As part of the Facebook Companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information (see here) with, the other Facebook Companies,” the updated privacy policy reads. “We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings, including the Facebook Company Products.”

While similar language exists in earlier versions of the company’s privacy policy, the updates now reveal the full scope of the information WhatsApp is able to -- and may be mandated to — share with other Facebook subsidiaries.

The shift appears to be a dramatic about-face for WhatsApp, a company that contends “respect for your privacy” is coded into its DNA and made end-to-end encryption standard across all chats as of 2016.

That said, one could read the change in policy as a move toward greater openness — WhatsApp may have already been collecting and sharing all that data, before deciding to define the scope of the data involved in this most recent update. If that’s the case, a push for greater clarity has led mainly to more consternation.

That’s thanks in large part to the way WhatsApp is handling this situation compared similar instances in the past. For example, the service announced in 2016 that it would start to share user data with Facebook for better ad targeting, but gave users the option of at least partially opting out of the data sharing. And following the last major privacy policy change, WhatsApp offered at least some of its users the ability to opt out of data sharing, according to BloombergQuint. At this time, it does not appear that Facebook and WhatsApp are offering a similar out for people troubled by these changes.

WhatsApp has said other things, however. In a comment provided to PCMag, a spokesperson noted that — functionally speaking — very little would change for existing WhatsApp users, and that people who previously opted out of data sharing with Facebook back in 2016 will remain opted out, even upon acceptance of the new terms. In comments provided to Ars Technica in the wake of the news, Facebook has also said that the change is primarily focused on changing the way businesses interact with their customers on the platform. Meanwhile, Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp director for policy for EMEA, noted on Twitter that users in Europe won’t have to worry about their data being shared with Facebook, at least for ads.

That’s good news for EU residents, but many of WhatsApp’s other users are mulling their alternatives. Thanks to the news of the service privacy policy changes — not to mention a terse endorsement from Elon Musk — secure messaging app Signal reported delays in issuing verification codes “because so many people” are trying to join right now.