Messaging service WhatsApp has agreed not to share its user data with parent company Facebook, having failed to provide a legal reason for sharing such information under British law.
This agreement comes at the end of an 18-month-long investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) into the data-sharing practices between WhatsApp and Facebook. Such practices would constitute a breach of British Data Protection Law—and in 2016, an update to the Facebook terms of service informed users that their WhatsApp data could be passed onto the social media giant in such a manner.
However, ICO Commissioner Elizabeth Denham failed to find any evidence that the data-sharing had actually taken place, meaning that Facebook have escaped the threat of a significant fine.
In December 2017, WhatsApp received a formal notice from a French privacy watchdog related to its data-sharing practices, as sharing user information without first gaining express consent contravenes France’s data protection laws too.
In response to both this and the ICO’s latest findings, Facebook has agreed to sign an undertaking stating that it would not share any WhatsApp EU user data with any other Facebook-owned company—until such practices comply with the incoming General Data Protection Regulation, which will come into force across the EU in May.
The conditional agreement is important here, as it doesn’t mean that Facebook will never taken user data from WhatsApp. Instead, it is only agreeing not to do so until it can be sure it won’t get into legal hot water for doing so.
In a statement, a WhatsApp spokesperson said:
WhatsApp cares deeply about the privacy of our users. We collect very little data and every message is end-to-end encrypted. As we’ve repeatedly made clear for the last year, we are not sharing data in the ways that the UK Information Commissioner has said she is concerned about anywhere in Europe.
However, Commissioner Denham appeared to share the concerns of privacy advocates unconvinced by the agreement signed this week. In a statement, she said:
I would also like to stress that signing an undertaking is not the end of story and I will closely monitor WhatsApp’s adherence to it.
For now, at least, it looks like the privacy of WhatsApp users in Europe has received a signficant boost. However, this situation is one that should remain at the forefront of their minds when agreeing to WhatsApp’s changes to their terms and conditions in future.