German regulator orders Facebook to stop processing users’ WhatsApp data

The watchdog is concerned the US company can manipulate nearly 60 million WhatsApp users’ data to influence federal elections in September

WhatsApp has more than 2 billion users, compared with 1.5 billion in 2018. Reuters
WhatsApp has more than 2 billion users, compared with 1.5 billion in 2018. Reuters

A German data protection regulator has ordered Facebook to stop processing its citizens’ personal data from WhatsApp ahead of the messaging app's May 15 deadline for users to agree to its new terms and conditions.

The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, or HmbBfDI, viewed the Facebook-owned company’s new terms as “scattered, unclear and hard to distinguish in their European and international versions”.

"The order is intended to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the many millions of users who approve to the terms of use throughout Germany,” Johannes Caspar, head of HmbBfDI, said.

“The worldwide criticism against the new terms of service should give reason to fundamentally rethink the consent mechanism once again. Without user trust, no business model based on data can be successful in the long run."

WhatsApp came under fire earlier this year for its revised privacy policy, which will allow the company to share data with its parent Facebook. The company had asked WhatsApp users to agree to the new policy by February 8 if they wanted to continue using the service, but later extended the deadline to May 15.

The change in policy, which led to a mass exodus of users to rival messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram, also led to increased regulatory scrutiny and other legal challenges in India.

Despite widespread criticism, Facebook said in February it will “clear up any confusion” and let users read the new updates “at their own pace”.

HmbBfDI, however, said WhatsApp’s new terms are “misleading and show considerable contradictions”.

“Even after close analysis, it is not clear what consequences approval has for users. Furthermore, consent is not freely given, since WhatsApp demands acceptance of the new provisions as a condition for the continued use of the service's functionalities,” it added.

Scandals surrounding data misuse, from Cambridge Analytica to the recently disclosed data leak that affected more than 500 million Facebook users, indicate the extent and threats of mass profiling, Mr Caspar said.

“This concerns fundamental rights and also the possibility of using profiling to influence voter decisions.”

With nearly 60 million WhatsApp users in Germany, the “danger is all the more concrete in view of the upcoming federal elections in September”, he added.

In July 2019, US regulators endorsed a $5bn privacy settlement with Facebook to resolve the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, following a long-running probe into the tech company's handling of user data.

Published: May 12, 2021 03:35 PM

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