Facebook Is Reading Your WhatsApp Chats: Report

Facebook Is Reading Your WhatsApp Chats

Facebook pays 1,000 workers to examine and scrutinize flagged WhatsApp messages, reveals a new investigation.

Your WhatsApp chats are anything but private, as per a new report by ProPublica. Facebook pays over 1,000 contract workers across Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore hourly to sift through millions of private messages, images and videos. The workers can only access the messages that users report. According to Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp, these contractors are merely removing “the worst” abusers.

Mark Zuckerberg and the case of data privacy

“They trust me. Dumb f–ks,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg messaged his friend in 2003 after he launched Facebook. Since then, Zuckerberg has constantly come under fire for breaching user privacy and sharing personal data. He has constantly apologized. Yet, the ProPublica report shows that not much has changed. 

In 2014, Zuckerberg bought WhatsApp for US$19 billion. Immediately, people were worried about their privacy, given Facebook’s questionable history. After all, as per the report, the source of Zuckerberg’s wealth has been “surveillance capitalism”. That is to say, he earns money by collecting and selling user data to help businesses target their ads. 

However, he promised that WhatsApp will be different. He will prioritize user privacy and not merge the platform with Facebook. He said, “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident that what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.” 

Come 2019, WhatsApp rolled out a new privacy policy saying that WhatsApp will share user data with Facebook to enable targeted ads (still claiming that they won’t read the messages; they never have). Amid uproar, they shelved that idea. 

Since 2014, Zuckerberg has tried to assure people that Facebook cannot read their messages. So much so that during his 2018 testimony to the U.S. Senate, he declared, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”

ProPublica found out that was a lie.

How does WhatsApp read your messages?

Once a user reports a chat, WhatsApp—and by extension, Facebook—has complete access to it. A confidential whistleblower filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after discovering this. ProPublica obtained the report which detailed how WhatsApp used outside contractors, account information and artificial intelligence (AI) systems to examine user messages and media.

Once you hit the report button, Facebook receives five messages—the “offending” one, along with the previous four messages in the chat box. The workers, together, go through millions of WhatsApp chats each week. Each contractor handles over 600 chats a day.

Their AI systems also scan unencrypted data that WhatsApp collects and compare it with suspicious messages patterns. For instance, if a new account is constantly texting you, it acts as evidence of spam. The unencrypted data includes “the names of a user’s WhatsApp groups, their phone number, status message, phone battery level, language, time zone, profile picture, unique mobile phone ID and IP address, wireless signal strength and phone operating system, as a list of their electronic devices, any related Facebook and Instagram accounts, the last time they used the app and any previous history of violations.” That’s concerning.

The former Co-founder of WhatsApp Brian Acton regrets selling WhatsApp to Zuckerberg. Dubbing it a “penance” for his crime, he invested US$50 million into WhatsApp’s rival company Signal, as per the report. Signal is an encrypted instant messaging app. In January 2021, when WhatsApp changed its privacy policy to accommodate ads, Elon Musk tweeted “Use Signal”. Following that, over a million WhatsApp users flocked to Signal. Despite this, WhatsApp is undeterred. In their blog, they noted, “We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data.”

How important is data privacy for startups?

In a nutshell: very. Startups require data to help their business progress. But, they must know the difference between respecting user privacy and breaching it. It is essential to be transparent about what data you will be using and for what. Then, leave it up to the user to decide whether they are comfortable sharing their data or not. Ultimately, the decision should rest with the user. To learn more about collecting data ethically, check out this article.

Header Image by Unsplash

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