Privacy groups call for review of Facebook Whatsapp deal

Privacy groups are calling for a halt to Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp until it clarifies how it plans to use the personal data of WhatsApp's members

Privacy groups are calling on US regulators to block Facebook's $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp until there is greater clarity about how it plans to use the personal data of WhatsApp's 450 million members.

The call comes amid growing concerns by privacy groups about such acquisitions that are aimed at acquiring as much information about as many people as possible.

Facebook is fast becoming one of the richest repositories of social data with the impending acquisition of WhatsApp, which follows its acquisition of Instagram in April 2012.

Similar concentrations of social data have also happened with Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr and Google’s acquisition of YouTube.

For many, one of the biggest attractions of WhatsApp was its lack of ads and its promise not to collect data for advertising purposes.

But there's no guarantee that that commitment will hold true once WhatsApp becomes part of Facebook, according to a complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) and the Center for Digital Democracy.

WhatsApp stores users' phone numbers, but does not collect user names, emails and other contact info.

“Facebook routinely makes use of user information for advertising purposes and has made clear that it intends to incorporate the data of WhatsApp users into the user profiling business model.

“The proposed acquisition will therefore violate WhatsApp users’ understanding of their exposure to online advertising and constitutes an unfair and deceptive trade practice,” the complaint states.

The complaint asks regulators to investigate the deal "specifically with regard to the ability of Facebook to access WhatsApp's store of user mobile phone numbers and metadata.”

The complaint also calls on the FTC to ensure that if the acquisition goes ahead, Facebook will “insulate WhatsApp users’ information from access by Facebook’s data collection practices”.

Facebook generates most of its revenue through ads that target users by age, gender and other characteristics.

But in response to news of the complaint filed with the FTC, the social networking firm reiterated statements issued along with the announcement of the planned acquisition that Whatsapp will operate as a separate company and will honour its commitments to privacy and security.

Despite these assurances, the complaint notes that Instagram is an example of a company whose privacy policy was changed after it was acquired by Facebook.

Like WhatsApp, Instagram’s Terms of Service included a provision that in the event of acquisition, users’ information such as name and email address, user content and any other information collected through the service may be among the items sold or transferred.

“After the acquisition, Facebook did in fact access Instagram users’ data and changed the Instagram Terms of Service to reflect this change,” the complaint said.

The complaint cites various concerns by users and other privacy groups about the planned acquisition, including St. John Deakins, the head of the online identity monitoring application Citizenme.

“Facebook already has a very broad copyright license on people's content and already shares your data with many other services. Now with Facebook buying WhatsApp, this could see more and more private information becoming part of Facebook's database. From a personal data standpoint, this is extremely worrying,” Deakins is quoted as saying.

The complaint notes that data protection authorities have already begun investigations in European countries, including the Netherlands and Germany.

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