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WhatsApp privacy disaster under scrutiny — here's what you need to know

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(Image credit: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

WhatsApp’s not been having a good few weeks, and it looks like things won’t be going back to normal anytime soon. Its latest crisis comes from the U.K. data protection regulator telling WhatsApp it should not hand over user data to parent company Facebook.

WhatsApp has insisted its controversial new privacy policy doesn’t change anything, but that hasn’t stopped people from fleeing to rival services. And now it’s got to the point where world governments are starting to take notice.

WhatsApp has said that the new terms and conditions only apply to data collected when users interact with businesses, while everything else is staying exactly the same. That change, according to WhatsApp, will only take place outside of the EU and U.K., as those regions have much more stringent data protection rules than the  U.S. and the rest of the world.

According to Elizabeth Denham, the U.K.’s information commissioner (via The Guardian), WhatsApp already committed to not sharing user data with Facebook until it could prove possible under GDPR regulations. Those rules still apply, despite the fact the U.K. has left the EU, which is why WhatsApp promised nothing was changing to the way it handled user data from the country.

But now the responsibility falls on her to ensure WhatsApp doesn’t break those rules, and Denham's told WhatsApp to say as much.

While this is good news for Brits, since it means WhatsApp has legal obligations to not share their data with Facebook, it’s not so good for everyone else. Speaking to a parliamentary committee, Denham pointed out that the specifics don’t matter as much as the fact that WhatsApp decided to “suddenly change the contract that they have with the users” which has led to concern over the “ trustworthiness and the sustainability of the promises made to users”. 

In this instance that promise is that WhatsApp would not be sharing user data with Facebook. That promise was made when the service was bought out in 2014, and swiftly broken in 2016. Users could opt out at the time, but reports that the latest privacy policy change was mandatory got a lot of people riled up.

The U.K. isn’t the only government concerned about WhatsApp changing privacy policy either, since the Indian government has already asked the service to withdraw its privacy policy changes.

It feels like it’s now only a matter of time until other governments, including the U.S., start asking questions about the relationship between WhatsApp and Facebook as well. Especially considering the country is missing many of the same laws and agreements that are supposed to keep European WhatsApp data away from Facebook.

While the new privacy policy now won’t be coming into force until May, a lot of what you may have read online likely isn’t true. It doesn’t mean Facebook will have access to private WhatsApp messages, nor can they access contact lists or other bits of personal information. As for data that is shared, WhatsApp insists that nothing has changed, only that it’s being more transparent about it.

Of course if that’s not enough to reassure you, you can always jump ship and join one of the best WhatsApp alternatives. Just make sure to bring over as many of your contacts as you can, otherwise the whole endeavor is pretty moot.

Tom Pritchard

Tom covers a little bit of everything at Tom’s Guide, ranging from the latest electric cars all the way down to hot takes on why Christopher Nolan is wrong about everything. Appliances are also muscling their way into his routine, which is a pretty long way from his days as Editor at Gizmodo UK. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online.