WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy Update: What is it all about?

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WhatsApp was founded in the year 2009 as a free, cross-platform messaging app which gained over 400 million monthly active users after four years. Eventually Facebook brought WhatsApp in the year 2014 and it changed the way it accessed and used user data. WhatsApp on 4th Jan 2021 has released its updated privacy policy and term of user for all users including over 400+ million Indian users, which is it’s biggest market. Lets discuss what is the change is all about in WhatsApp’s Update Privacy Policy and how much we know.

The WhatsApp Privacy Policy Update was mainly aimed at managing how the messaging platform will share user data with other Facebook Group product and services along with third parties. WhatsApp have also recently launched WhatsApp Payment service is India and created a separate policy page for the same. The new WhatsApp Privacy Policy is set to be effective from 8th of February 2021 and in case a user does not accept the same they have to quit WhatApp.

What are the Major Highlights of the new WhatsApp Privacy Policy?

The new policy majorly tries to provide a bit of clarity on how it will use the user data and share the same with other group companies or third parties. Let us look at each aspect one by one.

  • What all user data are collected by WhatsApp
  • How WhatsApp store, process and share the user data
  • How businesses can use Facebook Hosted Services to store and manage their WhatsApp chat
  • Providing a way for integrations across the Facebook company products and services

What all user data are collected by WhatsApp?

WhatsApp in its updated privacy policy has defined what all user data it collects. It collects your hardware information, location information, demographics information and even payment information.

The new WhatsApp Privacy Policy states that they collect device information such as hardware model, operating system details, battery level, signal strength, app version, browser information, mobile network, connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP), language and time zone, IP address, device operations information, and identifiers (including identifiers unique to Facebook Company Products associated with the same device or account).

It means WhatsApp knows exactly what you are doing, from where and how you use your device with other Facebook Company product and Services. WhatsApp is not a tracking app but it can track your every move even when you are not connected to GPS as it can still use your connection information to find your City, State and Country.

What happens if you do not give location access to WhatsApp?

The policy states that WhatsApp collects user location details with their prior consent, but even if your location sharing permissions are disabled for the app still, they make use of your IP address and connection information to find out your general location.  The new WhatsApp privacy policy states that, “Even if you do not use our location-related features, we use IP addresses and other information like phone number area codes to estimate your general location (e.g., city and country). We also use your location information for diagnostics and troubleshooting purposes.”

How our interaction with a business is handled?

If you are a user of WhatsApp business, or interact with any business using WhatsApp then you should be aware about these policy changes that are going to be effective from 8th February 2021.

  • Businesses you interact with using WhatsApp can provide your information to WhatsApp as per applicable laws
  • When you message a business on WhatsApp, the content is visible to several people in that business.
  • Businesses can give your information to their third-party service providers depending on their business need and WhatsApp will not have a control on the same.
  • WhatsApp recommends reading that individual business’s privacy policy on data collection and sharing.

How WhatsApp handle payment transactions?

In India WhatsApp is providing payment services via UPI and must stick to the strict RBI guidelines. It collects and stores information such as payment account, transaction information (including payment method, amount, shipping details, etc.). It handles all payment information as per its payment privacy policy that can be accessed at WhatsApp Payments Privacy Policy.

How WhatsApp store, process and share the user data?

WhatsApp is now a Facebook company and it clearly states that it can transfer, transmit or store your data across its global data centres, including those are in the US or countries or territories where the Facebook Companies’ affiliates and partners, or where their service providers are located, or any other country or territory globally.

Sharing of user data

As per the new WhatsApp privacy policy it can share your information with other Facebook Companies and third parties for easy integrations, serving of adds, and to provide better support services.

The WhatsApp updated privacy policy states that, “We work with third-party service providers and other Facebook Companies to help us operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services. For example, we work with them to distribute our apps; provide our technical and physical infrastructure, delivery, and other systems; provide engineering support, cybersecurity support, and operational support; supply location, map, and places information; process payments; help us understand how people use our Services; market our Services; help you connect with businesses using our Services; conduct surveys and research for us; ensure safety, security and integrity; and help with customer service. These companies may provide us with information about you in certain circumstances; for example, app stores may provide us with reports to help us diagnose and fix service issues.”

What if I do not accept the policy?

WhatsApp have clearly set a timeline till 8th of February 2021 to accept the new policy otherwise you will have to lose access to the platform. If you have pressed the button Not Now, there is no second choice apart from accepting the same if you wish to continue using WhatsApp or WhatsApp Business.

What if I delete my WhatsApp account?

If you choose not to accept the new changes and made your mind to delete your WhatsApp account, please be careful while doing so as WhatsApp still have some sensitive information about you with them.

  • When you remove WhatsApp from your account, it does not guarantee complete deletion of your info as copy of your chats and other info can also be with other active users.
  • WhatsApp also suggest you to use the in-app delete my account feature to delete your account or else WhatsApp will still store your information with them.

It warns that, “Be mindful that if you only delete WhatsApp from your device without using our in-app delete my account feature, your information will be stored with us for a longer period. Please remember that when you delete your account, it does not affect your information related to the groups you created or the information other users have relating to you, such as their copy of the messages you sent them.”

It is suggested to first delete all your interaction in groups, leave all the groups and then use the in-app delete account feature to somewhat securely remove all your information from the platform.

Why this new privacy policy update?

The updated WhatsApp privacy policy and terms will help Facebook and other third parties to access, store and share sensitive customer information including personal data, location data, etc. for commercial gain. Through these changes Facebook at large can leverage user demographics and behaviour matrix to better position the adds, suggest your additional services, integration among WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram or other such services.  

Some unanswered questions

As a user we will not gain any real benefit out of these changes apart from being more exposed to in the Internet World. Some really concerning questions to be answered can be,

  1. How Facebook as a parent company will ensure third parties do not misuse the user data?
  2. How can be the safety of the data can be guaranteed that are laying with other businesses or third parties?
  3. How these new policies will enhance the user experience?
  4. What will happen to the end-to-end encryption that is being guaranteed?
  5. WhatsApp always said that they can only have access to your chats, images, videos, calls or recording only for a fraction of second that it takes their servers to transmit to the intended users in a encrypted format, but there is no clarity provided on how the user data being shared in the background apart from chat text, calls or recordings are being encrypted?
  6. How data from Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are combined to give the user a seamless experience?

What are some of the alternatives to use?

As a user of WhatsApp if I choose not to accept WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy, I can go with other platforms like Dubai based Telegram or US based Signals. Both applications have their own merits and demerits when compared to WhatsApp. But personally, I make use of Telegram which states that it is the most secure platform and provide seamless sync between mobile, PC or web.

What is Indian Governments views on the update?

In India we lack independent third-party assessment regarding what and how much data is being used. We also do not have a clear policy like GDPR on handling of user consent. Facebook was also being probed in India apart from the US and other counties. Facebook has yet to respond to the joint parliamentary committee’s questions regarding its practice. On Indian government part its harder without a set national policy to ascertain where the problem of data sharing stands with such Internet giants.

While there are many questions to be answered, WhatsApp have left its 400+ million Indian user base to take a decision whether to continue using the platform or not. It is also not the first time that WhatsApp have made its policy changes, but this major change really raises eyebrows on how secure we are while using such platforms on Internet. It is now up to individual users to decide what to do we will continue to raise questions to be answered.

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