WhatsApp’s new ‘privacy’ policy is a gift to other messaging apps

When WhatsApp made clear that it planned to share a lot more information with parent company Facebook, including sensitive data such as phone number, device particulars and location, some users were not happy. But WhatsApp didn’t just make those changes. It included them in a new privacy policy and asked users to agree or not.

TechCrunch noted that users who don’t agree will soon become non-users.

“In an email to one of its merchant partners, …Facebook-owned WhatsApp said it will ‘slowly ask’ such users to comply with the new terms ‘in order to have full functionality of WhatsApp’ starting May 15,” TechCrunch reported. “If they still don’t accept the terms, ‘for a short time (later defined as “a few weeks”), these users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but will not be able to read or send messages from the app. WhatsApp’s policy for inactive users states that accounts are ‘generally deleted after 120 days of inactivity.'”

First, how wonderfully charitable and considerate are Facebook and WhatsApp for this move. They clearly felt that Signal and Telegram (and other messaging apps) needed a revenue boost so they did this to pressure their users to switch to a different messaging platform. Call it courtesy in the extreme.

Secondly, isn’t the original premise of privacy policies to let the company show how much they are protecting customer data? When did it morph into, “We’re going to make this as boring as possible so that no one reads it. And then we’ll list all of the ways we think of you as a source of data to exploit rather than as people.”

WhatsApp does not treat all interaction data the same, however. For the moment, user-to-user/customer-to-customer/consumer-to-consumer messaging is encrypted and considered private. But when a user communicates with a business, it’s considered fair game for Facebook. Users must now assume that a message to a business is potentially open to all, just like an unrestricted tweet.

(Here’s what WhatsApp itself says about data sharing with Facebook.)

To be fair to Facebook, when WhatsApp — which was founded in 2009 — was bought out by Facebook eight years ago, it was immediately prudent to assume that any and all data in the hands of WhatsApp was also under the control of Facebook. Heck, I give Facebook mountains of brownie points for waiting this long. Eight years is a lifetime for Facebook holding back on a privacy grab. That’s like an eight-month-old beagle waiting a week before lunging for a piece of steak that someone dropped under the dining room table.

Enough with the nice talk. The whole point of these messaging apps is to allow people and businesses to communicate privately and securely. Otherwise, why not simply email or text?

This is not merely a consumer issue. It’s a business headache in two ways.

One, businesses need to be able to discuss matters with customers, without worrying about Facebook grabbing the data and doing Lord-knows-what with it. Secondly, many business employees will use a messaging app to communicate with each other, somewhere far away from corporate-controlled and messaging from a corporate-owned device. Even worse, they want to be able to discuss sensitive matters with their clients in a place that they believe can’t later be made public. It could be as innocuous as not wanting a supervisor to give them a hassle about every sentence they share with a client.

I was quite serious when I said they are pushing their revenue stream into the hands of other messaging apps. If Facebook can’t maintain the discipline to properly protect messaging data, maybe it’s for the best that they push their clients into the arms of messaging app that will.