Privacy groups are demanding that the Federal Trade Commission look into the details of Facebook’s new app acquisition, in a move that has many wondering, “WhatsApp with that?” Just last week news sources were filled with posts regarding Facebook’s intention to buy WhatsApp for an estimated $19 million. WhatsApp, a popular instant messaging service used world-wide, is used by more than 450 million people. With user numbers so high, privacy groups are calling Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp into question.
Established in 2009, WhatsApp’s global usage has risen faster than most social networking sites, with most of its subscribers active consistently throughout the day. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) are concerned that with so many users, and such high communication traffic, users will be subject to privacy violations once the app is owned by Facebook.
Facebook is one of the worlds most widely used social networks, with a bad reputation of constantly changing their user’s privacy policies, especially the collection and sharing of user data. With Facebook’s history of compromising user privacy, privacy groups are concerned with the deceptive practices that Facebook has been known to engage in.
The EPIC argues that should Facebook acquire WhatsApp, the future privacy of user data is questionable. The users of WhatsApp were initially drawn to it because it was pro-privacy. In his blog last month, WhatsApp’s co-founder, Jan Koum, he explained that the application does not know the user’s name or gender, and that they, “designed [the] system to be as anonymous as possible.” The possibility of Facebook purchasing the app, however, will change all of that. EPIC attorney, Julia Horwitz, explained that there was no way WhatsApp users could have expected that one day their data would be subject, “to Facebook’s data-collection practices.”
Horwitz’s statement was part of the formal complaint delivered by both privacy groups on Thursday to the FTC. The EPIC and CDD insisted that the proposed merger is in violation of the consent decree issued by the FTC in 2011, and request that the FTC act to postpone the acquisition until they have investigated whether there will be adequate privacy protections guaranteed to users in order to secure WhatsApp user data from being accessed by Facebook. The complaint articulated that Facebook notorious for routinely utilizing user data for advertisement and marketing purposes, and according to the EPIC, the company has made it known that they intend to integrate WhatsApp user data into their user profiling business model.
It is uncertain how the FTC will respond to the official complaint but, until they do, the complaint bears very little legal significance. In the meantime, both WhatsApp and Facebook have defended their merger, ensuring that WhatsApp will continue to operate as a separate company, and, “will honor its commitments to privacy and security,” as phone numbers, contact lists and other data will not be shared with Facebook.
Only time will tell if the case develops further. After last weeks report on government spying of Yahoo messenger users, internet and personal data privacy should be a top concern for everyone; it is important for privacy protection groups like the EPIC and CDD to fight on the behalf of the users whose future privacy is potentially at stake. Even if the FTC does not get involved, the complaint itself calls users to question whether their privacy will be secure if Facebook and WhatsApp merge.
By Natalia Sanchez