WhatsApp’s Facebook Problem: App Continues to Face Privacy Questions Thanks to Its Parent Company

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Dec 18, 2017

WhatsApp, the Facebook owned messaging service, has received a one-month warning from one of Europe’s ruthless privacy watchdogs over sharing user data with its parent company. The biggest concern that users had when the data-obsessed Facebook had acquired a more user-focused WhatsApp was how consumer data will be protected from the sharks leading the social media network.

According to reports, the messaging app is now facing potential fines from a French regulatory authority over not complying with French privacy laws.

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“It has been found that WHATSAPP effectively transmits data about its users to FACEBOOK Inc. for business intelligence and security purposes. Information about users such as their phone number and information about their usage habits of the application are shared.” [Translated]

France’s data privacy watchdog, CNIL, said on Monday that it has given WhatsApp an ultimatum to comply with the order and focus on getting user consent before moving data to its parent company or it could sanction the company. The agency also criticized WhatsApp for “insufficient” cooperation after the initial warning from the European Union privacy authorities that had said they had serious concerns over WhatsApp sharing user data when its users had only signed up to use WhatsApp, not Facebook.

“WHATSAPP can not rely on its legitimate interest in massively transferring data to FACEBOOK Inc. insofar as this transmission is not accompanied by sufficient guarantees to preserve the interest or rights and fundamental freedoms of the users since there is no mechanism allowing them to oppose it while continuing to use the application.” [Translated]

The French watchdog said today it has “decided to make this formal notice public in order to ensure the highest level of transparency on the massive data transfer from WhatsApp to Facebook Inc. and thus to alert to the need for individuals concerned to keep their data under control”.

WhatsApp: we are only subject to US laws

While the company was first acquired by Facebook in 2014 amid privacy concerns, it wasn’t until last year that Facebook had started taking WhatsApp user data, drawing criticism from activists and warnings from the European Union privacy watchdogs. They had sent a letter to WhatsApp founder Jan Koum in October voicing concerns over not getting appropriate user consent.

The agency has apparently repeatedly asked the Facebook-acquired messaging app to provide a sample of French user data that was transferred to Facebook. However, WhatsApp said “it is only subject to the legislation of this country [United States]”.

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“The CNIL services have repeatedly asked WHATSAPP to provide them with a sample of French user data transmitted to FACEBOOK Inc. The company has indicated that it is unable to provide this information to the extent that, being United States, it considers itself subject only to the legislation of that country.” [Translated]

CNIL rejected WhatsApp’s argument that it’s only subject to the US laws, saying that any company that processes data in France becomes subject to local laws. The watchdog said WhatsApp lacked the legal basis to share user data with Facebook and had violated its obligation to cooperate with the French authorities by providing sample user data to confirm compliance.

Today’s notice isn’t a sanction, the privacy watchdog clarified, but in case the messaging company fails to comply, it would face fines in the future.