The uproar came after millions of people misinterpreted WhatsApp’s new terms to mean more data would be shared with its parent Facebook. This wasn’t the case: the update to WhatsApp’s policy covers the way people communicate with businesses, and the data shared with Facebook remains the same.
Yet the policy change and resulting backlash highlighted the large amounts of data WhatsApp can collect since its 2014 acquisition by Facebook. Spoiler: it is still a lot. But six months later WhatsApp is still by far the most popular messaging app, with two billion users.
So, what data does Facebook actually get from WhatsApp and Instagram, and is there any way of limiting the amount of information siphoned off to the social media giant?
What data can WhatsApp share with Facebook?
First things first. WhatsApp does not share the content of your chats with Facebook and this will not change after the terms of service update. The messages are private. Your messages – including photos, videos and calls – are protected by end-to-end encryption, so they can’t be read by law enforcement or WhatsApp itself.
Data WhatsApp can share with Facebook includes your phone number and profile name. In addition, more detailed information underlying the message known as metadata, including when it was sent and your IP address, can be collected and shared with so-called “Facebook companies”.
The EU and UK are protected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Data Protection Act, which limits data sharing in these regions. WhatsApp claims metadata is only collected and shared in the EU for certain purposes, such as if it is instructed to do so by law enforcement.
Metadata is a valuable tool to analyse the contacts between people, says Rowenna Fielding, founder and director of privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek. “When you look at metadata, it turns out a lot of the time you don’t even need message content, because patterns of activity tell you a lot about someone. This isn’t just, ‘X is on Y’s phone’, it is ‘X is on Y’s phone and they are messaging each other every evening at around 8pm for an hour’. You can then start extrapolating inferences or relationships and build social graphs.”
WhatsApp says data is only shared with Facebook for purposes such as preventing spam, and not for advertising. It outlines that WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook for its own use, and there are “no plans to do so”. WhatsApp also denies its data is used to inform Facebook’s People You May Know algorithm, but the social network has come under fire for incidents such as the time it recommended sex workers’ clients add them as friends.
Under GDPR, Facebook and its companies should be meeting accountability requirements by providing comprehensive and well-explained information, says Fielding. She says because what is happening to data is in many cases not clear, “it’s impossible to say exactly where data is going, which is a problem”.
The WhatsApp privacy change, which despite an initial delay is still rolling out, covers the way you communicate with businesses that use its API. WhatsApp chats between people and businesses are end-to-end encrypted as they are transmitted, but following the recent privacy update, they can be stored once received by a business using a Facebook-hosted service.
After an initial delay, the update to WhatsApp’s terms of service is starting to roll out globally, but it may still falter in the EU, where it is facing an investigation by authorities.
What data does Instagram share with Facebook?
Facebook and Instagram share infrastructure, systems and technology with other Facebook companies. This means information shared from WhatsApp about accounts sending spam can be used to take action on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger.
Instagram can also collect your location, where you live, the places you visit, and details about the businesses and people you’re near to “provide, personalise and improve Facebook Products”, including ads, for “you and others”.
Yet despite hefty data collection and sharing, Instagram has fewer privacy controls than its parent, says Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at security company ESET. “Instagram has fewer privacy controls than Facebook and you can’t stop most of your data being shared between the platforms, but you can adjust how certain information is used.”
For example, he says, Instagram shares your location data with Facebook but you can curb the app’s access to your whereabouts and limit the audience to your posts in your settings.
Limiting data sharing
Facebook companies are numerous, including Facebook itself and its Messenger service, as well as 91 acquisitions by the social network such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus. Limiting data sharing between Facebook and these companies is challenging, especially given the tracking and profiling that happens between the social network and other sites across the web.
“Every website, most apps and retailers, entertainment outlets and service providers are feeding your data to Facebook,” Fielding says. At least five million websites are using Facebook Pixel trackers, and people give away more of their data via the Login With Facebook API, which allows you to carry over Facebook profile information to other apps and websites. “That adds up to a huge amount of power over your online experience, beliefs and interactions,” says Fielding.
Yet there are some steps you can take to stop Facebook data sharing in general, says Fielding. “Don’t use apps that snitch to Facebook, don’t buy Facebook-reliant products, use Facebook in your browser not the app, if you have to at all. Stay off Instagram, delete WhatsApp or separate contacts lists by context, and have a separate work phone. Never use anything with ‘Facebook-powered’ on it.”
Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey
Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.
Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.
However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.
On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.
Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal
In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.
In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.
Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws
It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.
Russian social media laws
As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.
Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses
Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.
The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.
With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.
Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.
Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to email@example.com.