Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp shines light on personal data privacy once again


WhatsApp has always had a longstanding commitment to not collect user data for advertising purposes. Apparently the sight of Facebook's $19 billion check last month quickly changed that policy and privacy advocates are up in arms.

With over 450 million subscribers, WhatsApp brings a huge audience into the Facebook fold, one that is used to not dealing with ad placement in the app and as been assured that their data is not stored on servers. The aforementioned privacy advocates are out to make sure that doesn't happen.

Two non-profit advocacy groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have already filed claims with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking that the FTC investigate the deal "specifically with regard to the ability of Facebook to access WhatsApp's store of user mobile phone numbers and metadata."

Both the EPIC and CDD cite Facebook's poor track record of compromising users' privacy, a track record those that have been covering the social media world agree is wrought with inconsistency.

"Facebook certainly has a bad reputation of changing its policies on collecting and sharing user data," began social media marketing consultant Lauren Sosik. "We saw this when they bought Instagram in 2011 and we've seen it with regard to the sudden changes in their own privacy settings. User privacy has been somewhat of a moving target with FB."

Facebook's immediate response to the filing was that no changes are planned with regard to the way WhatsApp is currently operating as they released a statement that read: "As we have said repeatedly, WhatsApp will operate as a separate company and will honor its commitments to privacy and security"

In the filing made to the FTC by EPIC and CDD, the complaint asks regulators to put the acquisition on hold and investigate whether the acquisition violates the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive trade practices including companies that don't follow published privacy policies.

In the event that the deal goes through, EPIC asks the FTC to put a provision in place that would isolate WhatsApp users' information from being accessed by Facebook's data collection process.

In a blog post shortly after the deal was announced, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum wrote that the messaging system would remain "autonomous and operate independently" of Facebook.

Time will tell as to whether or not Facebook will indeed allow WhatsApp to operate independently - the company's track record on such matters might seem to suggest otherwise.

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