Merging privacy ...

Facebook vs. Whatsapp

The acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook has raised a number of interesting privacy debates, with the latest being a legal challenge to the deal on the grounds that WhatsApp's existing user privacy agreement will be violated if Facebook starts using the data to deliver targeted advertising.  It raises the question of whether the difference in the privacy agreements between WhatsApp and Facebook was part of the analysis when the acquisition was planned.

Questions that could (arguably should) have been part of the decision to value WhatsApp at ~£11bn (~US$16bn) include:
  • if isolating WhatsApp from Facebook (as proposed in the above article) would limit the possibility of creating new revenue streams (e.g., through advertising), from WhatsApp users?
  • would users leave WhatsApp in droves if Facebook changed the privacy policy to allows user data to be used for advertising?
  • whether hardly any users will care about the potential use of personal information for advertising so changing the privacy policy? 
Other articles about the merger suggest that Facebook really didn't have any idea about the user base of WhatsApp and therefore there was no possibility of thinking through the privacy implications of the merger.  Nevertheless it would be interesting to model the respective privacy policies of the two companies using an approach like our Privacy Arguments framework and see what mitigations needs to be put in place to enable the policies to be merged.

My own prediction for what will happen in practice is that Facebook will extend the functionality of its own Messenger application to close the feature gap with WhatsApp and try and encourage WhatsApp users to switch.  However, if they proceed to try and change the privacy policy of WhatsApp after the acquisition is complete, I hope they will allow users to delete all their data and leave!


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