WhatsApp’s Decision to Share Data with Facebook Poses Legal Risks

Yesterday, WhatsApp made a controversial announcement that it will soon start sharing user phone numbers and other analytics data with its corporate parent, Facebook. Although there is a partial way to be excluded from ad and product-related targeting on Facebook, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which serves as the country’s top privacy regulator, may pose a big problem for the social networking giant (via TIME).

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When Facebook acquired WhatsApp back in 2014, the FTC sent a letter to the companies warning them to honor their promises to consumers or face an investigation into unfair trade practices. This means that WhatsApp will have to tread very carefully as it implements its plan to share information such as phone numbers and analytics data with Facebook.

Now since the FTC does not actively tell companies what is or is not acceptable, it does require them to be familiar with its rules and act accordingly.

In this case, the answer to whether the Facebook data plan is legal is likely turn on just how WhatsApp goes about obtaining permission to implement the changes. As the 2014 letter from the agency noted:

“Finally, if you choose to change how you collect, use, and share newly-collected WhatsApp data, we recommend that you offer consumers an opportunity to opt out of such changes or, at least, that you make clear to consumers that they have an opportunity to stop using the WhatsApp service.”

In practice, this means Facebook could face extra scrutiny if it puts the new WhatsApp changes deep in a pile of legal mumbo-jumbo.

Facebook has also provided a brief statement in response to a question about the FTC rules, saying that WhatsApp complies with applicable laws, and that the company always considers its obligations when designing updates like this.

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  • Wendy Feuer

    Here in Canada, we fall under the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and his Provincial counterparts. WhatsApp has been blasted by Canada’s federal privacy commissioner in the past. This kind of activity merits scrutiny; I hope the OPC is evaluating.