Germany Forces Facebook To Stop Collecting WhatsApp Data

June 11, 2021 • Shannon Flynn


Facebook is in the data privacy spotlight again, this time, related to controversial terms and conditions associated with WhatsApp, which it also owns. These new challenges raise the question of when a critical mass of users may decide enough is enough and join the many who have already permanently stopped using Facebook and the growing number of apps and services under its umbrella.

Regulators Raise Concerns Over WhatsApp Data Usage Conditions

German regulators became concerned about new WhatsApp T&Cs and ultimately deemed them illegal. The trouble stemmed from how users must agree to the terms or no longer use the service. They had until May 15 to do that. However, German authorities issued a temporary halt to WhatsApp data processing.

Johannes Caspar, Hamburg’s data protection officer, clarified, “This order seeks to secure the rights and freedoms of the many millions of users who give their consent to the terms of use throughout Germany. “My objective is to prevent disadvantages and damages associated with such a black-box procedure.”

The data protection officer’s conclusion resulted in a three-month ban on Facebook collecting WhatsApp user data. Once WhatsApp users realized that the new terms and conditions permit sharing user phone numbers and IP addresses with other Facebook entities, many looked for WhatsApp alternatives. Elon Musk advised his millions of social media followers to use Signal, while 25 million people signed up for Telegram in just 72 hours.

Indian regulators had similar issues with the WhatsApp terms, but they used harsher language than the German regulators, accusing Facebook of “exploitative and exclusionary conduct.” That response came after Facebook and WhatsApp filed a petition with Indian regulators to stop an investigation into the terms and conditions. The authorities dismissed it.

A Fierce Backlash Over WhatsApp Data Without Complete Context

Just hours after news broke about the new WhatsApp user agreement, rumors proliferated social media. Some warned that Facebook workers could read people’s WhatsApp data contained in chats if users accepted the terms.

However, a fact worth pointing out is that people typically don’t read the terms and conditions in full before accepting them — or in this case, getting angry. A Deloitte study found that 81% of people agree to those stipulations without reading them.

Indeed, the 4,000-word WhatsApp agreement stated that the changes only applied if people used the service to chat with businesses. In other words, not WhatsApp data from chats with friends or family. That doesn’t necessarily mean Facebook is in the clear, but it’s a strong reminder that people should read the specifics fully before getting up in arms.

Facebook and WhatsApp are not alone in their privacy shortcomings. Many other popular sites, services and apps have had similar issues. For example, in 2019, news outlets covered a Zoom vulnerability that allowed hackers to access someone’s video feed after a targeted user clicked on a phishing link.

The Increasing Push for Facebook Regulation

Facebook regulation has been a hot topic recently, with many concerned parties asserting that the brand needs greater oversight. That’s an understandable conclusion. Facebook’s data breach and privacy woes began no later than 2005 and continue.

In one April 2021 incident, a Facebook data breach comprised information from hundreds of millions of users, including their phone numbers. An organization called Digital Rights Ireland intends to take a case against the company on behalf of users in that country affected by the breach.

Estimates suggest about 1.5 million Irish people were. Digital Rights Ireland representatives believe forcing Facebook to pay for user rights violations is an effective way to make the company change its practices.

It’s too early to know how this action might play out and affect Facebook’s future decisions. However, if this user-based mass suit succeeds, people in other countries might join together to show Facebook it’s time to change.

Does Tech Usage Always Come With Privacy Risks?

Data breaches are increasingly common in the tech world, and they could give unauthorized parties access to tremendous amounts of information. Think back to your recent Facebook data, and it may relate to your job, products you like, details about your medical issues and tidbits about your family. The same goes for WhatsApp data, especially if you’ve used the service for years.

People may understandably wonder if they’re taking a known risk by engaging with tech companies and products. That’s an unfortunate but likely accurate conclusion. The incidents described here and elsewhere strongly suggest that users can’t trust company leadership to do the right thing on their behalf regarding data protection and privacy.

That means it’s time for tech users to gauge how much risk they’ll tolerate. Facebook, WhatsApp and many of the other brands associated with alleged data misuse are among the biggest names in the technology sector. They’re not the only options, however. If things don’t change at tech companies in meaningful ways, people could show an even stronger desire to leave the offending services and look elsewhere.