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Europe Data Protection Digest | Notes from the IAPP Europe Managing Director, 15 Jan. 2021 Related reading: Encrypted chat apps see rise in downloads

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Greetings from Brussels!

There has been a fair bit of movement and activity across the professional instant messaging landscape in the last few days which I think merits mention. It will not have gone unnoticed that WhatsApp, the Facebook company, made some recent updates to its terms and conditions including its privacy policy, which sparked a flurry of reaction.

If you are a user, and I am one, you will have received a consent notice that updates will be in effect as of 8 Feb. That said however, the extent of the update will all depend on where you reside, as determined by your mobile number. The new rules of engagement will apparently only impact non-EU/EEA users — not covered by the GDPR — who will be obliged to accept and mandate WhatsApp to share and process certain data sets with parent company Facebook. In short, WhatsApp will start to share personal data such as usernames, phone numbers, profile photos, IP addresses, and other device information with Facebook. The reason for these changes as cited by Facebook is to help operate and improve its offerings and services across its group companies.

If you are a long-time user of WhatsApp, you will recall that back in 2016, two years after being acquired by Facebook, users were given the option to opt-out of the user data exchange with the parent company which was considered a value proposition for many; if nothing more, or being particularly principled, than just to keep the app — and by extension your user data — separate and independent. This, coupled with the 2014 development of cutting-edge end-to-end encryption, was a winner the world over across both personal and professional usage to the tune of 2 billion users.

Despite the dual communications around the recent changes, there has been some unrest among users, which has resulted in an upsurge of rival instant messaging services such as Signal and Telegram. I for one am also a subscriber to Signal and saw a deluge of new users (known from my contact list) register with the service; I received dozens of notifications. I am also reading that in the week WhatsApp announced the changes, Signal was downloaded 8.8 million times worldwide. From my own contacts, many of these new users were European, which may suggest that they did not fully comprehend the impact of the new rules.

However, the media reported a wave of social media misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the announcements which led to a certain level of global panic around user privacy. In turn, WhatsApp also started to address the numerous rumors via its social channels. On its Twitter handle it stated categorically: “Our privacy policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family,” there is also a new company FAQ page that addresses the changes, and privacy concerns, including explanations on what is shared with Facebook. Furthermore, I also noted that Niamh Sweeney, director of EMEA Policy for WhatsApp, confirmed through her own Twitter handle that “there are no changes to WhatsApp's data-sharing practices in Europe arising from this update. It remains the case that WhatsApp does not share European region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or ads.”

Of note, Italian DPA, the Garante, also issued a statement this week. The agency is concerned that the recent changes were not fully transparent or clear for the end user. The Garante also stated that it has referred its concerns to the European Data Protection Board in Brussels, and reserves the right to intervene, as a matter of urgency — if required — to protect the interests of Italian users.

There is more to come on this story: One thing is abundantly clear, wherever you find yourself in the world, there is a growing concern over surveillance capitalism. More importantly, consumers clearly care about their privacy.

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