A move long suspected WhatsApp would make after the acquisition by Facebook was to start sharing its data with Facebook so users could be targeted with ads. When it was acquired, both Facebook and WhatsApp however said this would not happen. WhatsApp’s long held negative views on advertising, and strong views on the importance of privacy seemed to be the guiding principles.
That is changing now as WhatsApp has announced that it will now share its users’ phone numbers with Facebook for the purposes of targeted advertising. Essentially, as a revenue model (or at least to justify Facebook’s big spend on it) WhatsApp is selling phone numbers for advertising via its parent company.
Says WhatsApp in its announcement:
Facebook and the other companies in the Facebook family also may use information from us to improve your experiences within their services such as making product suggestions (for example, of friends or connections, or of interesting content) and showing relevant offers and ads. .
Your chats will not be shared. Cannot be shared.
In case you are wondering what exactly will be shared, it is just the phone number and not the chats. Thanks to WhatsApp’s own encryption which makes it impossible for anyone, including WhatsApp itself or Facebook, to read the contents of chats, your WhatsApp chats will not be shared.
Besides Facebook, who else will see your phone number?
WhatsApp is just sharing the phone number with Facebook because it represents your most current number (which Facebook likely doesn’t have on your regular profile) and a current one is more valuable for ad targeting.
Your phone number will however not be added to the Facebook profile which is feasible to other users of Facebook, and will not be shared by any advertisers directly.
Here’s what WhatsApp says about it:
We won’t post or share your WhatsApp number with others, including on Facebook, and we still won’t sell, share, or give your phone number to advertisers.
Why is this a u-turn
When Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum wrote in an article title “Setting the record straight“:
Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible: You don’t have to give us your name and we don’t ask for your email address. We don’t know your birthday. We don’t know your home address. We don’t know where you work. We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that.
Koum was right that this information is not collected on WhatsApp and is indeed still not collected.
However what changes today is that WhatsApp is sharing data item that most personally identifies people today. More identifying than email addresses, birthdays, home addresses and other such data which can be easily faked. And considering Facebook’s plan is to match that number to your rich-with-other-data Facebook profile (otherwise it’d be useless) all the “we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible” falls away.
Added to that, in WhatsApp’s famous Why we don’t sell ads article, Koum says:
Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.
The truth is that advertising is now clearly involved in what WhatsApp does.