After Facebook acquired the popular privacy-focused instant messaging service WhatsApp, users feared Facebook’s notorious user data-gathering would stretch into the new service — a concern shared by the Federal Trade Commission.
“WhatsApp has made a number of promises about the limited nature of the data it collects, maintains, and shares with third parties — promises that exceed the protections currently promised to Facebook users,” the letter said. “We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honor these promises to consumers.”
FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich personally wrote the letter to Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan and WhatsApp legal counsel Anne Hoge.
“We don’t know your name, your gender,” WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum told Wired while describing the service’s promise not to invade its users’ privacy. “We designed our system to be as anonymous as possible.”
“I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on,” Koum said. ”People need to differentiate us from companies like Yahoo and Facebook that collect your data and have it sitting on their servers.”
WhatsApp’s promise not to observe, analyze, share or even keep the data of its 450 million users prior to its acquisition stands in stark contrast to known Facebook policies and practices, which include reading and scanning private messages for content and links, and analyzing user data to accommodate targeted advertising.
Facebook is also among the numerous Silicon Valley giants recently outed by the National Security Agency as willfully participating in the agency’s PRISM bulk surveillance program of internet users’ metadata — a claim the company denied for almost a year following the leaks of classified agency programs by former contractor Edward Snowden.
In the letter, Rich told Facebook and WhatsApp that if any changes are made to the service, the FTC expects those changes to be clearly disclosed to its users along with a chance to opt-out.
After the announcement of the buyout in February, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told a Mobile World Congress audience in Barcelona that he did not intend to change anything about the service’s privacy standards.
“The vision is to keep the service exactly the same,” Zuckerberg said, describing the privacy standards as “what people want.”
“We would be pretty silly to get in the way of that.”