What Facebook’s Acquisition of WhatsApp Means for Your Privacy and Reputation

whatsapp facebook closeup

whatsapp facebook closeup

Last Wednesday, Facebook spent $19 billion, an almost unfathomable amount of money, to purchase WhatsApp. But the real story is what the acquisition of WhatsApp means for your privacy and reputation.

WhatsApp is a cross platform instant messaging application that can be used on just about any smart phone and sent to almost all carriers without paying the SMS fee. The app has over 450M users, and over 70% of those users are active each day. With WhatsApp’s $0.99 annual subscription and rumored $20 million revenue in 2013, it’s clear that Facebook didn’t invest in the app for its existing revenue opportunities.

Team Zuckerberg clearly sees the future of sending instant messages as it moves away from the wireless carriers. The graph provided by Facebook below shows the amazing trajectory of growth of WhatsApp in their first four your years in comparison to other instant messaging platforms. Many industry experts believe that by the end of 2014, more messages will sent via WhatsApp than sent than the SMS messages on all wireless phone carriers combined. No matter which way you slice it, that is an incredible amount of messages, and an amazing opportunity for Facebook to grow their user base.

WhatsApp Growth

WhatsApp Growth

Still, Facebook is a publicly traded company, and will be expected to recoup its $19 billion investment. But how? The answer may lie in user privacy.

WhatsApp’s growth has been partially attributed to the story built around co-founder Jan Koum. Jan was brought up in the Ukraine, which at the time was under Communist rule. Civilians were forced to deal with constant surveillance. With Koum’s background, WhatsApp privacy has been a priority. All messages are encrypted and kept on the users phone rather than saved to a server. Koum shared his view on privacy in a WiredUK interview:

I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on. Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state — the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.

Kaum has taken such a serious stance on privacy and honesty for WhatsApp users that he has kept the below piece of paper on his desk since the forming of the company.



The big question is do WhatsApp privacy claims hold true? And, will WhatsApp users enjoy the same level of privacy now that Facebook is in charge?

We all know that Facebook has had some privacy issues in the past. The new Graph Search makes your entire Facebook past entirely searchable, including old photos you might have hoped to hide forever. According to a scathing article from Yasha Levine in Pando Daily, WhatsApp privacy claims aren’t entirely squeaky clean, either. According to Levine, WhatsApp didn’t start encrypting messages until the end of 2012, a full three years after launch.

WhatsApp privacy issue was so bad that an unnamed developer created an Android app called “WhatsAppSniffer.”  The app allowed users who were on the same WiFi network as another WhatsApp user to easily see the other users’ messages and photos. This flaw took over a year to fix.

WhatsApp was also investigated just last year by both Canada and the Netherlands for shoddy encryption, as well as taking and saving user data without their permission.

The app’s compelling narrative on privacy has an imperfect past, and joining forces with Facebook doesn’t bode well for the future. What does this mean for WhatsApp users?

What will happen moving forward is up for debate, as Facebook has made it clear post acquisition that WhatsApp will operate independently and keep their offices in Mountain View, CA. But there are still a variety of ways Facebook can use WhatsApp to its advantage that may be of concern to your privacy.

  1. While WhatsApp says that they will never serve ads, Facebook could compile all data from your sent and received messages through WhatsApp. Let’s say you’re messaging your friend about heading to the Cubs game, but that you need tickets. Next thing you know, you could be seeing ads on your Facebook feed from StubHub for an upcoming game.
  2. Currently, in order to sign up for an account with WhatsApp, you only need to provide a phone number, but that could change. Data mining is big business, and Facebook is always looking to collect data for potential ad serving for their many advertisers. WhatsApp could require additional information on sign up, while still living by their mantra of no ads, no games, no gimmicks.
  3. In order to get around “no ads,” WhatsApp could ask you to opt in to certain notifications based on what you are interested in. If you are constantly messaging your roommate about ordering a pizza, WhatsApp could message you with pizza coupons, and it could be perceived more organic than normal served ads.

There are plenty of other options, but as of now, its still an unknown where this union between Facebook and WhatsApp will take us. What we do know is that protecting our online privacy and reputation is becoming more and more complicated each day. We are hopeful that this acquisition will keep the data we send and receive online more secure than it has been in the past.