This is simply not true, and neither is the claim that your account will be deleted or suspended if you refuse to agree to the new terms.

But the misinformation from both media and on social networks caused a huge backlash and hundreds of thousands of people switched to Signal and Telegram, two other messaging apps which offer end-to-end encryption.

WhatsApp has now pushed back the date that the new privacy policy comes into effect from 8 February to 15 May. It says this is to give people time to review the policy at their own pace, as well as to give itself time to "clear up the misinformation".

Are the reactions justified? Should you stop using WhatsApp? What's the truth about the changes to the privacy policy?

In short: the outcry would be justified if Facebook and WhatsApp could read your private messages. But neither company can, nor will be able to after the changes. There's no reason to stop using WhatsApp and if you want to know what's changing and what's not, keep reading...

What exactly is WhatsApp changing on 15 May 2021?

Nothing is changing in terms of person-to-person communication. The company says the updated privacy policy "includes new options people will have to message a business on WhatsApp, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data. While not everyone shops with a business on WhatsApp today, we think that more people will choose to do so in the future and it’s important people are aware of these services. This update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook."

You can read all about the updates and FAQ on WhatsApp’s website, but here’s a summary of the important stuff:

  • Private messages will still be encrypted
  • Facebook (and WhatsApp) won’t be able to read your messages
  • WhatsApp doesn’t log who you are messaging or calling
  • WhatsApp and Facebook cannot see your shared location
  • WhatsApp contacts will not be shared with Facebook
  • WhatsApp group chats remain private
  • Any communication with a business on WhatsApp may not remain private

In terms of data being shared with Facebook, this has been happening for years and probably without users realising: it’s not changing now. When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 it then allowed users to opt out of sharing data via a notification that appeared for a short period in 2016. But those who didn’t use that opportunity or didn’t subsequently opt out manually, plus anyone who signed up since then will have – by default – granted Facebook permission to have their phone number and WhatsApp name.

The changes to the privacy policy were detailed back in October in this Facebook blog post. The company is planning to introduce a payment system within WhatsApp so that users can purchase from businesses. It’s likely Facebook wants to replicate the success of payments in WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app.

Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp at Facebook tweeted, “Not everyone may realise how common it is to WhatsApp message businesses in many countries. In fact, about 175 million people message a business account each day on WhatsApp and more want to do so.”

He also said, “It's important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook. It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”

Users in the UK and Europe are seeing a different privacy policy to the rest of the world because of GDPR. These data protection regulations place much tighter restrictions on the information that can be shared between companies, meaning there are in fact no changes to how data is shared in the updated policy. Finally, it feels like there’s actually a benefit to offset all those GDPR pop-ups.

WhatsApp’s EMEA policy director Niamh Sweeney tweeted: “There are no changes to WhatsApp's data-sharing practices in the Europe arising from this update. It remains the case that WhatsApp does not share European Region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or ads.”

Of course, WhatsApp and Facebook execs would say that. We spoke to Robin Wilton, Senior Advisor for Internet Trust at Internet Society about it. He's concerned about the dangers of weakening encryption technologies and how they threaten the security and privacy of billions of users online.

"There are two separate issues at hand, the first of which is about personal data privacy. The new terms and conditions applying to WhatsApp are just the latest example of what has been Facebook’s practice for a long time – signing people up under one set of terms and conditions which are then revised, over time, to be more permissive and share more of the user’s data by default.

Looking into the detail of the policy change, it's said to apply only to the messages WhatsApp users choose to exchange with businesses. Again, even if users believe that is safe, or that it doesn’t apply to them, they may be looking down the road to the inevitable next steps from Facebook; switching from this being opt-in to opt-out, and extending the policy from B2C to all messages. There’s also the point that Facebook can intrude significantly on privacy without needing to read the contents of WhatsApp messages by mapping and monetising an individual’s social graph.

The second issue is what “end-to-end encryption” is taken to mean under the new terms and conditions. Facebook has already said it will accede to US law enforcement demands for access to encrypted data, and you can’t have it both ways."

In an attempt to clarify the changes and to try and stem the tide of users jumping ship to Signal, an infographic was posted by the official WhatsApp Twitter account on 12 January:

WhatsApp privacy policy changes 2021

It seems reassuring, but doesn't say anything about what data Facebook does have access to, or clearly explain the changes it's making to the privacy policy which do apply to business messaging. Assume, then, that information given to a business isn't encrypted and can be passed to other companies (but shouldn't be in Europe because of GDPR).

Signal has shot to the top of the app charts on the Apple App Store, and is said to have had over 100,000 signups since the notifications started appearing. Telegram, which doesn’t enable encryption by default but offers it, said 25 million people had signed up in just 72 hours, and that it now has more than 500 million users.

WhatsApp privacy policy changes 2021

Of course, your decision now is whether you trust what Facebook and WhatsApp is saying about the changes. It’s inconvenient to have to switch to a new app, but you’ll also have to persuade everyone else you chat to do the same which is why the furore is unlikely to cause any significant proportion of WhatsApp users to ditch the service.

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