In 2014, when Facebook bought messaging platform WhatsApp for $21.8 billion, many people were worried about the privacy implications. But the companies promised that nothing would change and that WhatsApp would "remain autonomous and operate independently." Well, this week, things changed. WhatsApp will now start sharing data from its one billion users with its equally behemoth parent company.
WhatsApp won't share messages that people write or who is messaging who, but it will share people's phone numbers as well as analytics information, like how often they open the app, their operating system, screen resolution, and their mobile carrier. That information could be used by Facebook to, for example, target people with ads and make friend recommendations.
If that freaks you out, there's some good news: You can opt out… kind of. Facebook is getting this data no matter what, but you have 30 days to tell Facebook that you don't give them permission to use the data to "improve its ads and product experiences." In other words, if it doesn't already have your mobile phone number, it won't be able to use it to help advertisers who know that number use it to target you with ads on Facebook properties or recommend you friend someone who has your number in their contacts.
As WhatsApp explains in a blog post, to stop the sharing from happening, you can unclick the box below when WhatsApp hits you up with its new terms and conditions:
Or, if you rapidly click past that screen and miss the tiny little box, you can go into your WhatsApp settings and turn off the sharing.
Facebook has to give people this option because of its standing settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over deceiving consumers by not keeping privacy promises. In 2014, the FTC reminded Facebook that when it came to WhatsApp, "it must get consumers’ affirmative consent before making changes that override their privacy settings." (I guess a little checked box that you have to click multiple times to find counts as "affirmative consent.")
The bad news: Even if you opt out of the data sharing, "the Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities," according to the WhatsApp blog. So Facebook will still link your Facebook and WhatsApp accounts to fight spam; it just won't use anything it learns to make friend recs or serve ads.
If you're still freaked out by Facebook's creeping data empire, you could stop using WhatsApp altogether. There's always Signal, an encrypted messaging app from the crypto-anarchist who helped build end-to-end encryption into WhatsApp two years ago, which helped get Facebook into all kinds of trouble with the government in Brazil.