Facebook has bought WhatsApp. I don’t like it.

February 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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What does the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook mean? On the face of it (no pun intended), it means that whatever data you produce while interacting with WhatsApp will be available to Facebook. And I guess vice versa, though that’s less interesting.

I want to ask this question in two ways. What does this mean about the past, and what does this mean about the future?

Let’s start with the past. Does Facebook now have access to all the text messages, pictures and videos I have ever sent or received on WhatsApp? I think not. Whatsapp’s “Privacy Notice” says that “Once a message has been delivered, it no longer resides on our servers. The contents of any delivered messages are not kept or retained by WhatsApp.” That’s good. Facebook can’t see my texts. However, it also says: “The contents of messages that have been delivered by the WhatsApp Service are not copied, kept or archived by WhatsApp in the normal course of business.” It doesn’t define “the normal course of business,” but for now we’ll have to assume that they don’t know what I’ve been saying or reading on WhatsApp.

However, they do know who I’ve been in contact with: “WhatsApp may retain date and time stamp information associated with successfully delivered messages and the mobile phone numbers involved in the messages, as well as any other information which WhatsApp is legally compelled to collect.” Putting aside the question of what information WhatsApp is legally compelled to collect, what they are telling us here is that they are retaining metadata. This metadata is of huge importance (otherwise the NSA wouldn’t be so keen on it) and tells the service provider a great deal about us.

For instance, there are people I interact with on Facebook who I barely interact with outside of Facebook, if at all. They are kind of quirky Facebook chums. I enjoy reading their statuses and commenting on them. Sometimes they Like mine. However, on WhatsApp I interact with the people who are really important in my life (not meaning to diss my lovely Facebook friends): my partner, my siblings, my parents, the people who I see most regularly. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Facebook will use this information to tweak its EdgeRank algorithm to try and keep me on the site for longer (and thus make me a more saleable commodity to advertisers).

Facebook will be receiving all of the metadata collected by WhatsApp: “In the event that WhatsApp is acquired by or merged with a third party entity, we reserve the right to transfer or assign the information we have collected from our users as part of such merger, acquisition, sale, or other change of control.” I think a large part of the deal here is Facebook buying this metadata.

What does this mean for the future? Facebook is in the advertising business. More information about users means better targeted adverts, which, in theory, means that more advertisers will advertise on Facebook and Facebook earns more money. Up until now, the information collected about us by Facebook only went as far as the internet. (I say “only” – this is already a huge amount.) The acquisition of WhatsApp now lets Facebook into our text messages. Whatever we may think about the publicness of information we post on Facebook, surely we all feel that there is a difference between a Facebook status update and a text message.

Texting is private. It feels more like telling something quietly to a friend than shouting it out from the rooftops. So should the text messages we send be mineable for information that will help advertisers target us more efficiently? For those of us who have ditched regular SMSing for WhatsApp (i.e., nearly all of us), this is what’s about to happen.

This is just a very preliminary sketch of what I think the Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp means. It says nothing about the implications for state institutions to know us even better. It says nothing about the chilling feeling of knowing that your private communications are going to be integrated with your more public performances. I also haven’t gone in to the importance of the networks you belong to (i.e. the people you chat with on WhatsApp) in defining who you are for external observers, often very accurately and in ways that would surprise you (I’m thinking here of the deanonymization efforts of people like Latanya Sweeney, Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov).