The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy are asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate how the WhatsApp deal will impact the privacy of its users. Facebook acquired WhatsApp just a few weeks ago.
The concern is that Facebook will use the personal information of WhatsApp’s more than 450 million users to target advertising. Those who started using WhatsApp before it was acquired by Facebook were told that WhatsApp would not collect user data for advertising revenue. The complaint states:
Facebook routinely makes use of user information for advertising purposes and has made clear that it intends to incorporate the data of WhatsApp users into the user profiling business model. The proposed acquisition will therefore violate WhatsApp users’ understanding of their exposure to online advertising and constitutes an unfair and deceptive trade practice, subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.
On June 18, 2012, WhatsApp posted a blog titled “Why we don’t sell ads”. Perhaps the key point is this sentence: “Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.”
WhatsApp also posted a blog on February 19, 2014, titled “Facebook”. It is about the acquisition. The key point from that blog might be this sentence: “Here’s what will change for you, our users: nothing.” The blog promises that users can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting their communication through WhatsApp. Facebook has issued a statement indicating that they will honor WhatsApps commitments to privacy and security.
This situation reminds me of some words of wisdom that gets passed around. You cannot be certain that anything posted on “the internet” (on a blog, in a chat, or through social media) will be kept private forever. That being said, I can understand why users of WhatsApp feel betrayed. WhatsApp promised not to sell their data for adverting purposes. Will Facebook keep that promise? It will be very interesting to see what the FTC thinks about this situation.