WhatsApp is a chat platform that built it’s brand on privacy and strong security. In 2014, they were acquired by Facebook for $22 billion (WhatApp generated about $0.03 per user in revenue, Facebook paid about $55 per user in the deal) but subscribers were assured that this was a good thing and that the privacy and security of subscriber data was still paramount. Later that same year, they partnered with Open Whisper Systems to provide strong end-to-end encryption for their subscribers to reiterate their focus on privacy and security. Earlier this year, the $0.99 annual subscription to WhatsApp was dropped but the company assured subscribers that this wasn’t a move to go to an ad supported model and that the privacy and security of subscriber data was still paramount. In a move that should not be surprising to anyone though, WhatsApp has put users on notice that they will be sharing their phone numbers and “other selected data” with it’s parent company, Facebook.
Sidestepping the deception (when asked directly if they would ever be ad supported when they dropped the annual subscription fee earlier this year, they said no), the huge question here is how can this be secure end-to-end and still offer “more relevant Facebook ads”? According to the latest news, WhatsApp will be sharing subscribers “phone numbers and other select data with it’s parent company [Facebook]” in order to offer customers “more relevant Facebook ads” and “track basic metrics about how often people use our product and better fight SPAM“. If the WhatsApp conversations are truly encrypted end-to-end, the only entities that can see the contents of the conversation are the participants. At no point should any entity between those two endpoints have the ability to see anything other than metadata (date, time, parties [endpoints] involved and perhaps message length). While that may give them the ability to share the phone number (if they are using their phone as an endpoint to send / receive the message), that’s about all it would give them unless they had the ability to peer into the conversation so the question is, more relevant ads to what? I have to imagine that they’re talking about providing ads that are more relevant to the subject matter of the conversation in WhatsApp but, if that’s the case, how do they know what the conversation. Lots going on and not a lot of direct answers.
- 2014 Facebook acquires WhatsApp – http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-10-28/facebook-s-22-billion-whatsapp-deal-buys-10-million-in-sales
- 2014 Partnership with Open Whisper Systems – https://whispersystems.org/blog/whatsapp/
- 2016 Drop $0.99 subscription – https://techcrunch.com/2016/01/18/whatsapp-free-business/
- 2016 WhatsApp now ad supported – http://arstechnica.com/business/2016/08/whatsapp-ads-facebook-volte-face/