Explainer: Is WhatsApp REALLY changing?

Honestly? Not really.

[This article was updated to include comments from the Information Regulator and the extended deadline]

Everyone is talking about it – probably, ironically, via WhatsApp: the messaging app recently announced some policy changes. Users have been receiving a pop-up message containing an ultimatum – accept our terms and conditions, or you’ll have to stop using the app come 8 February. [Update: WhatsApp extended this deadline to 15 May 2021.]

Given how popular WhatsApp is, the news has raised a number of questions. What exactly is changing, how does it affect us, and should we continue using WhatsApp? So we did some digging (and boy… it was a lot!) to help you understand what’s happening with WhatsApp. 

What is changing? 

Honestly, nothing. WhatsApp only announced that it is further integrating its service with its owner, Facebook. It was not clear what this actually meant to the ordinary user, so the company issued a statement this week clarifying their announcement, saying the update will only affect WhatsApp Business accounts and the people who interact with them. In an article published on MyBroadband, the company said, “There will be no change in data sharing with Facebook for non-business chats and account information, and with regard to business messaging, we are not mandating users to share data.”

But this doesn’t mean WhatsApp hasn’t been sharing some of our information with Facebook already. It’s in the fine print.

On its website, WhatsApp said, “The information we share with the other Facebook Companies includes your account registration information (such as your phone number), transaction data, service-related information, information on how you interact with others (including businesses) when using our Services, mobile device information, your IP address, and may include other information identified in the Privacy Policy section entitled ‘Information We Collect’ or obtained upon notice to you or based on your consent.”

You get the picture. Information sharing is NOT new. You can read more about that here.

Can WhatsApp read my messages? 

No! This is because of something called “end-to-end encryption”. Murray Hunter, a data privacy expert, explained that this means any message you send to your contacts is secured on your phone in an uncrackable code. The code is decoded only once it arrives on the receiver’s device. Anyone between that, including Facebook and WhatsApp, can’t read the message, he said. So, no CIA agent will come knocking on your door asking why you were talking about the Illuminati. (We have some questions, though. 👀)

Okay, so how will this ACTUALLY affect me? 

As we said, if you decide not to interact with business accounts on WhatsApp, nothing much will change. But if you do interact with a WhatsApp business account, this is what you should know, according to WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy

WhatsApp Business accounts can choose to house their communication on Facebook via Facebook’s hosting service. Doing so will allow these accounts to manage their communication with their clients and customers better, BUT here’s the kicker: the WhatsApp privacy policy states, “Whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.” 

WhatsApp said it will label businesses who choose to use Facebook as a hosting service, so you’ll know if you’re interacting with one.

Then, somewhere along the way, WhatsApp will change from being just a place to chat to a place where you can buy stuff. This is what the Privacy policy states: 

“Some businesses will display their goods right within WhatsApp so people can see what’s available to buy. If you choose to interact with shops, your shopping activity can be used to personalise your shop’s experience and the ads you see on Facebook and Instagram.” (Facebook also owns Instagram.) 

If you choose to use WhatsApp to shop, then WhatsApp will tell you how it will share your data with Facebook, according to the privacy policy. But that’s still in the future.

So why does WhatsApp want my data?  

Basically? Capitalism. They want to make more money. As Emma Sadlier, a social media law expert, explained in a video published on YouTube on January 11: 

“We know that Facebook is a company that is out to make money. This is not a charity who just dreamt up how to give us cool stuff for free. We know Facebook, as much as we don’t pay for it with money, we pay with every morsel of information that we give them.” 

As the Privacy Policy states here: WhatsApp may use your information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook, while Facebook may use the way you interact with these ads to personalise the ads you see on Facebook. This, they will do, using what the tech heads call “metadata” – the data they’ve collected about you (like your interactions) which gives marketers insights on what kind of ads you’d like to see.

You may have seen this in action already: Google “how to make banana bread” once, and suddenly your Instagram, Facebook and even Google news feed will feature more bananas and more baked goods.

Should I be concerned?

If you’re not worried about sharing your data then, no. But data sharing is a cause for concern for many people, which is why you may have heard about people migrating to Telegram or Signal – read more about them here. But the thing that stirred panic since the announcement is WhatsApp publishing the terms and conditions in a way that forces users to agree.

“Essentially, they’re giving us no choice, and that leaves users feeling disempowered,” Hunter told explain.

“So when people say ‘nothing is changing with this latest policy’ what they’re missing is that there is nothing reassuring about the status quo. The policy might not make things significantly worse, but things are already not good enough,” he said. 

UPDATE: South Africa’s Information Regulator said it’s in discussions with Facebook South Africa over the stated privacy concerns and whether it’s in line with the Protection of Personal Information Act. The regulator said it’s now analysing the privacy policy’s impact on South African users and will meet again with representatives of Facebook, EWN reported.