It turns out with particular search phrases anyone can join the hundreds and thousands of WhatsApp groups all over the world – even private groups.
A google search of the phrase “chat.whatsapp.com” results on over 470 000 results. Motherboard, who broke the news actually managed to enter a private group for NGOs and were able “to see a list of all 48 participants and their phone numbers.”
Google’s public search liaison explained that this was nothing out of the ordinary and is just the way search engines work:
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Search engines like Google & others list pages from the open web. That’s what’s happening here. It’s no different than any case where a site allows URLs to be publicly listed. We do offer tools allowing sites to block content being listed in our results.Danny Sullivan – Public Search Liaison
This seems to suggest the burden to remove these lay with WhatsApp but a WhatsApp spokesperson also shifts the blame to WhatsApp users saying ultimately they shouldn’t share links to private groups on the internet – which I think makes sense:
Group admins in WhatsApp groups are able to invite any WhatsApp user to join that group by sharing a link that they have generated. Like all content that is shared in searchable, public channels, invite links that are posted publicly on the internet can be found by other WhatsApp users. Links that users wish to share privately with people they know and trust should not be posted on a publicly accessible website.WhatsApp spokesperson
Ultimately the story should serve as a warning to users when it comes to sharing links to WhatsApp groups on the internet. As the spokesperson for WhatsApp suggests, if a group is meant to be private – sharing that invite link on a webpage that is accessible to billions of users compromises that privacy.