The case is still ongoing and the it will be interesting to see how the court moves in this matter, particularly given the fact that in India we don’t have any explicit laws for privacy protection. But we do know how WhatsApp is defending itself. The company is saying that it is going to share with Facebook only the phone number of the user and no other data, because it doesn’t have that data. It says that all communications — chats, voice calls, funny photo forwards… everything — is encrypted on WhatsApp and only users have access to their data. No one else, not even WhatsApp can look into this data.
Although probably accurate — we have to trust WhatsApp here — this argument is also little disingenuous. WhatsApp is making it look like that sharing a phone number — it’s just the phone, say its representatives — is not a big deal and is not a privacy issue. But that is not accurate. In the world where a smartphone, which has a phone number connected to a WhatsApp account, is at the centre of our lives, the phone number is the key that unlocks everythi
Both Facebook and WhatsApp are part of the “Billion Club”. In other words, both have over a 1 billion active users. However, that doesn’t mean that combined the two apps have over 2 billion active users. Even when the user bases are merged, the number of users is more or less same, which is little over 1 billion. This is because the people who use WhatsApp also Facebook and vice versa. Now, WhatsApp doesn’t gather user data. Or at least that is what it says and we have no reason doubt it. But at the same time, Facebook is very clear that — just like Google — it collects a lot of user data and then crunches it to find patterns and insights that it can use for targeted advertising.
Now imagine that Facebook, being a parent company and all, wants to create profiles of WhatsApp users. There are two ways to go about it. One, it collects data directly from WhatsApp, similar to the way it does with the Facebook, and then use that to create user profiles.
The second method is to just connect the WhatsApp number to a Facebook or smartphone user. When you have two apps installed on your phone — Whatsapp and Facebook, you are already giving a lot of data to Facebook. WhatsApp says it doesn’t collect geo-location information from users. But Facebook, an app that sits on your phone’s home screen alongside WhatsApp, does. Currently, your WhatsApp number is probably not connected to your Facebook profile. But once Facebook gets the number it will be and it won’t matter whether WhatsApp collects personal data or not because Facebook wouldn’t need all of it to complete profile of WhatsApp users.
If you are on the web and are using popular services like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google search etc, you have already given a lot of your personal data to these companies. You can’t do anything about it. The whole business model of free apps is based on “give me your data, I will give you ability to make free calls”. It’s as simple as that.
There would have been a time when all of this would have sounded awful. But currently it’s just part of the digital life. It’s sad but true and there is nothing unusual about WhatsApp sharing phone numbers of users with Facebook or Google bots (automatically) reading all the emails landing in your inbox.