Keeping a low profile on social media may not protect most people from companies and the government from gathering and storing their personal information. There is a dashboard that allows people to see what Facebook knows about them and how it gets and uses these personal — and sometimes intimate — information: Introducing “WhatsApp.” Pronounced like the American slang that was exaggerated in that old Budweiser Super Bowl commercial, WhatsApp is a cross-platform, instant messaging subscription for smartphones that allows users to share photos, images, videos, and podcasts. On Facebook, it is well-known for telling users whether their private messages are seen or not, which is called a timestamp, according to Wired.
Adi Azaria, co-founder and director of sales and business development at SiSense, stated on a LinkenIn article that WhatsApp is a like “an omniscient gatekeeper, holding data about you, the personal information you write and receive, and can open the floodgates to the world at their own free will.” WhatsApp not only knows its users’ name, interests, and political and religious affiliations, it also knows who agrees or disagrees with their opinions and what might go on inside the users’ brain — food, shopping, kung fu flicks, pornography, or fetish.
According to Azaria, a month ago about 450 million people were using WhatsApp. After Facebook acquired it for $19 billion on February 19, 2014, WhatsApp could “merge its data with the social media titan very soon—putting your most intimate details at the mercy of the world’s biggest social media platform with 1.3 billion users and counting.” With over two billion Facebook users and additional social media outlets like Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, local and international businesses and people from all walks of life will most likely gain access to users’ most intimate secrets and desires.
“While money can’t buy happiness, we just learned that it can buy your personal details (and those of millions of others),” wrote Azaria. Facebook may have struck gold by acquiring WhatsApp because of the wealth of private data and intimate information it gets from their users. In a sample scenario, Azaria used the SiSense dashboard to expose the information from a single WhatsApp convo over 45 days. The program followed a user named “Jennifer,” recording her waking hours and showing that she is most active around 8pm and goes to bed around midnight. Azaria states that it’s very likely that advertisers will promote ads that Jennifer may most likely prefer around that prime time hour. Jennifer may also have a weight problem since over half of her conversation is about food with 15 percent of that convo is about desserts. Therefore, ads and coupons that will most likely appear on her social media are from Weight Watchers, 24 Hour Fitness, and local restaurants. WhatsApp eliminates the guesswork for advertisers, allowing them to know exactly what certain people want or like and target and coerce their message to them.
On April 10, 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a letter to the attorneys of WhatsApp and Facebook about privacy obligations among the companies’ users. This reflects on the agency’s growing concern about how tech and social media companies use private data. The letter said that Facebook must abide to its promises that WhatsApp had made to its users. FTC’s Director of Consumer Protection, Jennifer Rich, wrote, “We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honor these promises to consumers.”
Although WhatAapp’s private policy claims that it will not sell or share Personally Identifiable Information and the users’ mobile phone number with third-party companies for commercial or marketing use without consent, it will sell or share without the users’ consent “as part of a specific program or feature” which users can “opt-in or opt-out.” WhatsApp also stated in its legal info page that it will use the private data to “improve the quality and design of the WhatsApp Site and WhatsApp Service and to create new features, promotions, functionality, and services by storing, tracking, and analyzing user preferences and trends.” WhatsApp also concluded, “Hopefully we improve the WhatsApp Site and Service and don’t make it suck worse.”
How Facebook and WhatsApp use and get their users’ personal information and intimate thoughts and likes, no one knows for certain. Meanwhile, users should be more aware that the companies like to know where they are, where they have been, and what they like and don’t like. Azaria warns that users should think twice before shooting a text on WhatsApp about where they are going.
By Nick Ng