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Facebook's Whatsapp buy is a privacy nightmare for users, but it makes sense for the social network

Column It's not just your details it wants
Thu Feb 20 2014, 13:30

SOCIAL NETWORK Facebook announced on Wednesday that it is aquiring cross-platform messaging app Whatsapp, handing over a cool $19bn for the company.

While Facebook has promised that Whatsapp will remain untouched and will operate as a standalone app, news of the buyout hasn't gone down well with Whatsapp users, who have since threatened to delete it - most of them doing so on the social network that they apparently despise so much.

The reason? Because Facebook already knows enough about them, and this acqusition opens up Whatsapp's back door to NSA and GCHQ surveillance.

Of course, these concerns are valid. Whatsapp has a user base of 450 million people, some of whom likely don't use Facebook but now find that the app they so regularly use is falling into the hands of the social network.

St John Deakins, CEO of Citizenme - an app that enables users to monitor their online identities - agreed, and said that Facebook's Whatsapp acquisition likely will mean Facebook slurping yet more user data.

"Currently, Whatsapp can change terms and conditions at any time, without notifying users, which many people who use this service aren't aware of. Meanwhile, Facebook already has a very broad copyright licence on people's content and already shares your data with many other services," he said.

"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."

Another major concern is that Facebook's Whatsapp buyout opens the app's database of 450 million phone numbers to the social network - numbers which many users, myself included, have avoided sharing on the social network's website.

Eden Zoller, a telecoms analyst at Ovum commented, "With the acquisition Facebook has gained access to Whatsapp's large repository of phone numbers, which was a missing link for Facebook's user information. The access to phone numbers now bridges the offline and online worlds of Facebook users."

I'm a user of Whatsapp, and of course Facebook's ridiculously expensive acquisition of the firm has got me concerned about my privacy, especially the fact that the social network likely now has access to my mobile phone number.

However, I like to think that Facebook's $19bn buyout wasn't just so the firm could get its greasy mitts on the data of Whatsapp users. With the firm spending so much cash on the app, Facebook would be stupid to tinker with the appeal of Whatsapp. If so, Facebook could see users of the instant messaging app fleeing to alternative SMS services - making the $19bn it spent seem even more ludicrous.

Zoller added, "Facebook will need to develop Whatsapp but must ensure it does so in a way that does not compromise the appeal of the core service that has proved so popular with users. Under its own management, Whatsapp has made a point of staying true to its messaging roots and aimed to remain a pure-play messaging service by avoiding broadening the platform to support additional services such as games."

What's more - and I might be being naive - I also think that the buy was genuinely, as Zuckerberg said, to help Facebook connect "the next billion" people to the web. With Whatsapp appearing on almost all mobile platforms, even that of Nokia's budget Asha smartphones, this acquisition helps Facebook target developing markets, something that it has so far been unable to do on its own.

As Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post on Wednesday, "Over the next few years, we're going to work hard to help Whatsapp grow and connect the whole world. We also expect that Whatsapp will add to our efforts for, our partnership to make basic internet services affordable for everyone.

"I've also known Jan for a long time, and I know that we both share the vision of making the world more open and connected."

So, while the buyout does raise privacy concerns for users of Whatsapp, it might not be as bad as it seems. Saying that, we would advise users to keep a close eye on the app's privacy conditions and settings. µ


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