WhatsApp users are to agree to new usage guidelines by May 15. An overview of what is to change as a result and what experts think of it.
WhatsApp’s new guidelines will come into effect on May 15. There have been many misunderstandings and fears about the changes. Critics warn of new opportunities for data exchange with the parent company Facebook. What has happened, what will happen and how data protectionists see the issue. An overview.
In early January, WhatsApp announced that new policies would soon apply to all users. The first media reports were followed by great indignation. Many users switched to other messengers. Some were under the impression that WhatsApp would have access to private chats in the future.
WhatsApp defended itself against such rumors, which circulated on Twitter and elsewhere. The company also repeatedly pointed out in the app that private chats are secure. In addition, WhatsApp postponed the introduction of the new rules, originally planned for February, by about three months to May 15.
What are the changes about?
WhatsApp keeps repeating that the update does not involve any extended data transfer to Facebook. This applies primarily to users in the EU. Outside the EU, some WhatsApp user data has already been flowing to Facebook since 2016, for advertising purposes or to improve products.
The current changes, however, are primarily about creating better opportunities for communication with companies. To that end, WhatsApp itself emphasized that messaging with businesses is designed differently than with family or friends. “When you communicate with a business via phone, email or WhatsApp, they can use the information from those interactions with you for their own marketing purposes. This may include advertising on Facebook,” it said in a statement.
What data does WhatsApp collect in the first place?
WhatsApp account information and phone number
Transaction data (in India, for example, users can transfer money via WhatsApp)
The user’s network
Usage and log information
Mobile device information
Status information”Other information” collected with the user’s permission
Information provided by third parties about users
Also, among other things, messages are stored in encrypted form for up to 30 days if they could not be sent immediately to the recipient. An overview of what data WhatsApp collects can be found here on WhatsApp’s website under “Information we collect”. The company explains what information WhatsApp shares with Facebook on this info page. The main thing to read here is that WhatsApp does not share personal data or WhatsApp contacts with Facebook.
One of the main reasons for the confusion was probably that WhatsApp distributes its info across many sub-pages and the whole thing is difficult to see for normal users. Experts such as Klaus Palenberg from the consumer center NRW also criticize this procedure. Palenberg told the news magazine “Spiegel” in January: “It is not said centrally in one place: We do this, not that. A lot is kept open. Even those who know about data protection law have to read many passages three times.”
What happens if I don’t agree by May 15?
Those who don’t agree by May 15 can still use their accounts – for now. Originally, it was said that users would only have limited access to WhatsApp and that accounts would be deleted after some time. Now, however, the company writes on its website that insecure users will still be able to consent. After “a few weeks have passed,” there will then be a permanent reminder, it adds. “Once you receive a permanent reminder, your functionality of WhatsApp will be limited until you accept the changes,” WhatsApp said.
For example, users will no longer be able to access their chat list, but will still be able to accept incoming voice and video calls. Read more about the changes here.
Data protectionists criticize changes
Data protectors around the world are eyeing the changes critically: for example, at the beginning of May, the Brazilian data protection, consumer protection and competition regulator demanded that WhatsApp postpone the introduction of its new policies and threatened to take action. Facebook should first fix inadequacies that had come to light during the authorities’ audit, reports “heise online.”
In Germany, Hamburg’s Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Johannes Caspar opened emergency proceedings against Facebook in mid-April. On May 11, it was announced that Caspar had issued an order prohibiting Facebook from further processing WhatsApp user data. Read more about that here.
WhatsApp countered in an initial response, saying that the data protection officer’s order was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the goal and consequences of the update.” According to the service, the aim is to create better opportunities for communication with companies and to make the use of data more transparent. Previously, WhatsApp had always said that with the new rules there would be no extended data sharing with Facebook. “Since the claims of the Hamburg data protection authority are false, the order will not affect the introduction of the update,” a spokesman stressed.
Ulrich Kelber, the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (BfDI), is also critical of the issue. In May 2020, for example, Kelber had published an assessment that federal authorities should not use WhatsApp for communication.
When asked by t-online about the current case, he said, among other things: “As a data protectionist, I take a critical view of the potential data exchange between WhatsApp and Facebook. This also applies with regard to the collection of telephone numbers by means of address book uploads by WhatsApp,” Kelber said in a statement. “The company can process in this way all contact data stored on the cell phone of the person using it, regardless of whether the respective contact uses WhatsApp itself or not.”
The BfDI has also asked the responsible Irish data protection authority, the DPC (Data Protection Commission), a number of questions that still need to be clarified on the subject. Among other things, whether the DPC already receives information from WhatsApp, whether and to what extent data is transferred to the U.S. and not only processed in Europe.
What alternatives are there to WhatsApp?
As alternatives to WhatsApp, secure messengers such as Threema, Signal or Wire are often mentioned. Telegram is also considered a messenger alternative. Unlike WhatsApp, however, chats there are not encrypted end-to-end by default. You can read more about Telegram here.
Those who want a similar experience to WhatsApp can switch to Signal, for example. The messenger is also recommended by whistleblower Edward Snowden. You can read how to switch from WhatsApp to Signal here. And some tips about Signal can be found here.
I want to switch: How can I save my chats?
If you want to switch messenger, you can have your WhatsApp account deleted manually in the settings. You cannot undo this step. Before that, you can save important chats. This can be done via the settings. Click on the three dots in the top right corner of the respective chat, select “More” and then “Export chat”. You can have the file sent to you afterwards.
In addition, you can request a report that contains a lot of information about your WhatsApp account. You can read about what this is and how to request the report here.