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WhatsApp’s new data privacy policy: Take a look at the info the messenger service will collect from you

A close look at the information users who have agreed to the new privacy terms will be sharing with Facebook’s WhatsApp chat service.

January 14, 2021 / 12:44 PM IST

WhatsApp's updated privacy policy has caused a lot of commotion for the company in the past few days. The matter reached a point where WhatsApp had to issue full front-page newspaper ads explaining their side of the story. However, most users still don't understand what exactly they are sharing with WhatsApp from their smartphones.

Reading through WhatsApp's privacy policy, the first section that caught our eye was "Automatically Collected Information". This is the set of information that WhatsApp collects from your device automatically when you are using their services.

The Info WhatsApp Is Collecting From You

The first set of information that WhatsApp collects is your usage and log information. What this means is that WhatsApp collects information regarding how you use WhatsApp, how you interact with personal contact versus business accounts, as well as the time, frequency and duration of what you do on the app. Essentially, WhatsApp knows how much time you spend on voice calls, video calls, or viewing other users' status. In addition to this, under this section, WhatsApp also says they collect information about your group name, group description and the picture you use on the group. They might not be able to see your group messages, but they can find out what the group is from via the name and description if they wish.

The next set of information is of your device and the connection you use on your smartphone. WhatsApp can access information regarding your device's hardware specifications, battery level, as well as which mobile operator or internet provider you use on the phone. The trouble is that if you view permissions that WhatsApp takes on your device, you will realise that WhatsApp has access to a lot of features.

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It can pair with Bluetooth devices, change your network connectivity, disconnect you from WiFi, control NFC on your phone and even change your audio settings if required. You can manage these permissions and deny access. However, most smartphone users won't know how to do that, thereby sharing all this information and control of the device with WhatsApp as they have agreed to this privacy policy.

The third significant information which is automatically collected by WhatsApp is your location information. WhatsApp says they only use precise location information if the user enables this feature for this specific function. However, WhatsApp also says if the user does not use the location feature on the device, they still use the phone's IP address along with other information to track your location on a more 'general' note. This essentially means they can pinpoint your location if they want without your approval.

The Business Angle

Another loophole with WhatsApp's privacy policy is under the 'Businesses on WhatsApp' usage. In this section, WhatsApp mentions that if you use WhatsApp to interact with any Business, the business might work with third parties, including Facebook, to manage your communication. In this scenario, WhatsApp is not responsible for any information you share with such business. Data can be read, collected or processed by the third party as per their policies.

So if you are dealing with a business on WhatsApp, anything you share can be accessed and used if the third party's policy allows for the same. You will need to reach out to the third party involved to understand if your shared information is protected or not, and that is thus your responsibility for your privacy.

Sharing Information with Facebook Companies

Now you know what all information WhatsApp collects, but what information is shared with its parent company Facebook and its other services? WhatsApp links that as well in their privacy policy smartly with a hyperlinked section.

WhatsApp shares your phone number, transaction data for payments, device details and any of the information mentioned above with Facebook companies. WhatsApp says any information obtained upon notice sent to you or based on your content can be shared with Facebook companies. Of course, this is all shared under the idea of helping improve and support services.

However, there is a subsection in this section of the policy that says the information WhatsApp collects can be used to make personalised suggestions for friends, groups, or content and show relevant offers and ads across Facebook products. This brings up the question that if all of your messages and media that you share are encrypted and cannot be read, how is WhatsApp able to offer personalised suggestions?

Oddly enough, there is one more line in the privacy policy that reads, "In fact, Facebook will not use your WhatsApp messages for any purpose other than to assist us in operating and providing our Services." So with this, it's clear that Facebook does get access to the encrypted messages in WhatsApp, even if it's under the notion of being used to help provide WhatsApp services.

WhatsApp collecting your information and how it uses the information has many contradictions in the company's privacy policy. On the one hand, WhatsApp says it does not share information with Facebook, but it also says Facebook can access messages to "improve" services.

WhatsApp needs to clarify these loopholes in its policy instead of issuing full-page newspaper ads. However, going through the privacy policy, it is clear that WhatsApp does share some of the user information with third parties.
Karan Bajaj is a senior tech journalist based in Delhi
first published: Jan 14, 2021 12:44 pm

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