Last month, Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced it would delay the enforcement of the new privacy terms, following a setback from confused users that later led to a legal challenge in India and various research studies. WhatsApp users had misinterpreted the privacy updates as an indication that the app would start sharing more data – including private messages – with Facebook. Today, the company shares the next steps it takes to try to fix the problem and clarify that it is not the case.
Mismanagement of the privacy update by WhatsApp led to widespread confusion and misinformation. In fact, WhatsApp had shared some information about its users with Facebook since 201
But the setback is a solid indication of a lot of user trust Facebook has since wasted. People immediately suspected the worst, and millions fled to alternative messaging apps, such as Signal and Telegram, as a result.
Following the call, WhatsApp tried to explain that the privacy update was actually focused on optional business features in the app, which allow a company to see the content of messages between it and the end user, and allow companies to use this information for their own marketing purposes, including advertising on Facebook. WhatsApp also said that there are conversations with companies that use hosting services from Facebook to manage conversations with customers, so that users were aware.
In the weeks since the debacle, WhatsApp said it took time to gather user feedback and listen to concerns from people in different countries. The company found out that users wanted assurance that WhatsApp was not read their private messages or listen to their conversations, and that their communication was end-to-end encrypted. Users also said they wanted to know that WhatsApp did not keep logs of who they reported or shared contact lists with Facebook.
These latter concerns seem valid, given that Facebook recently made its messaging systems across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram interoperable. One has to wonder when similar integrations will get to WhatsApp.
Today, WhatsApp says it will launch new communications to users about the privacy update, which follows the status update it offered back in January, with a view to clarifying points of confusion (see below).
When users click “to review”, they will see a deeper summary of the changes, including additional details on how WhatsApp works with Facebook. The changes emphasize that WhatsApps updates do not affect the privacy of users’ conversations, and repeat the information about the optional business features.
Finally, WhatsApp will start reminding users to review and accept the updates to continue using WhatsApp. According to the previous announcement, it will not enforce the new policy until 15 May.
Users still need to be aware that their communication with companies is not as secure as their private messages. This affects an increasing number of WhatsApp users, of which 175 million now communicate with companies on the app, WhatsApp said in October.
In today’s blog post about the changes, WhatsApp also took a big swipe at rival messaging apps that used the confusion over the privacy update to pull in WhatsApp’s fleeing users by designating their own apps’ privacy.
“We’ve seen some of our competitors try to get away with claiming they can not see people’s messages – if an app does not offer end – to – end encryption by default, it means they can read your messages,” WhatsApp’s blog post read.
This seems to be a comment specifically aimed at Telegram, which often shows its “highly encrypted” messaging app as a more private option. But Telegram does not offer end-to-end encryption by default, as apps like WhatsApp and Signal do. It uses “transport layer” encryption that protects the connection from the user to the server, a Wired article quoting cybersecurity professionals, explained in January. When users want a completely encrypted experience for their one-on-one conversations, they can enable the “secret conversations” feature instead. (And this feature is not even available for group chats.)
In addition, WhatsApp fought against the characterization that it is somehow less secure because it has some limited data about users.
Other apps say they are better because they know even less information than WhatsApp. We think people are looking for apps to be both reliable and secure, even if it requires WhatsApp to have some limited data, ”reads the post. “We strive to be thoughtful about the decisions we make, and we will continue to develop new ways of meeting this responsibility with less information, not more,” it noted.