WhatsApp's privacy policy explained: messaging service responds to controversy surrounding updates

'We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,' the company said

(FILES) This file photo taken on October 5, 2020 shows the logo of US social network Facebook and mobile messaging service WhatsApp on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. Secure messaging app Signal is at the top downloads on Apple Store and Google Play platforms in several countries after the popular messaging app WhatsApp asked its some two billion users on January 7, 2021 to accept new terms that will allow it to share more information with its parent company Facebook and roll out advertising and e-commerce.  / AFP / Lionel BONAVENTURE

WhatsApp has responded to the outcry against its updated privacy policy with a statement that attempts to allay people's fears about how their data will be used.

The messaging app has been caught in the crosshair of controversy since it announced a policy update that will force users to share personal information with its parent company, Facebook. The new policy will go into effect on February 8, after which those who do not accept the updated terms will no longer be able to use the app.

The news garnered criticism as many took to social media to point out that WhatsApp – a company previously devoted to privacy and security with its encrypted messaging service – was going astray from its founding principles. Many have even started looking for alternatives to WhatsApp.

Following the update, billionaire tycoon Elon Musk encouraged his 42 million Twitter followers to "use Signal" instead. The two-word tweet prompted a surge of new users to the messaging app, causing a temporary disruption to its sign-up process.

However, WhatsApp is now trying to clear any misunderstandings about the information it can gather under its updated policy, in a bid to retain users.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” the company said in the FAQ section of its official webpage. “Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.”

This photograph taken on 11 January, 2021 in Toulouse, southwestern France, shows the logos of WhatsApp and Signal mobile messaging services. Secure messaging app Signal is on the top downloads on Apple Store and Google Play platforms in several countries after the popular messaging app WhatsApp asked its some two billion users on January 7, 2021 to accept new terms that will allow it to share more information with its parents company Facebook and roll out advertising and e-commerce. / AFP / Lionel BONAVENTURE

The company says the app still protects and secures users’ private messages. Neither WhatsApp nor Facebook will be able to see messages or listen in on phone calls or voice messages.

“WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook. WhatsApp groups remain private,” the company wrote.

“Personal messages are protected by end-to-end encryption. We will never weaken this security and we clearly label each chat so you know our commitment.”

WhatsApp said it does not keep logs of who users are messaging or calling. While many mobile carriers and operators do store this information, WhatsApp said “keeping these records for two billion users would be both a privacy and security risk and we don’t do it.”

The company also noted that it can’t see what location you share with someone through WhatsApp. Shared locations, like private messages, are protected by the app’s end-to-end encryption service, “which means no one can see your location except the people you share it with.”

As an added layer of privacy, WhatsApp said it allows users to set their messages to disappear from chats after they are sent. Users will also be able to download the data that WhatsApp saves.

However, things are different when interacting with a business account, where privacy is not ensured. WhatsApp says it wants to make the process of messaging businesses easier and better.

“We will always be clear within WhatsApp when you are communicating with any business that uses these features,” the company said. “Some large businesses need to use hosting services to manage their communication. Which is why we’re giving businesses the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts.”

Whether users communicate with a business via phone or WhatsApp, the platform can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing, which could include advertisements on Facebook.

“To make sure you’re informed, we clearly label conversations with businesses that are choosing to use hosting services from Facebook,” WhatsApp said.

The app is also launching new features that enable businesses to display their goods on WhatsApp with Facebook-branded commerce services like Shops.

“If you choose to interact with Shops, your shopping activity can be used to personalise your Shops experience and the ads you see on Facebook and Instagram,” WhatsApp said. “Features like this are optional and when you use them we will tell you in the app how your data is being shared with Facebook.”

The new feature, WhatsApp said, also helps users discover new businesses. Facebook ads will be enabled with buttons that allow users to message businesses using WhatsApp.

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