Hong Kong privacy commissioner urges WhatsApp to keep Facebook sharing procedures simple

The move comes as messaging service asks users to say whether they wish to share personal information with Facebook, which bought WhatsApp in 2014

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2016, 8:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2016, 11:34pm

The privacy commissioner has urged WhatsApp to use “simple” and “friendly” methods to prevent users from falling into the trap of sharing their account with Facebook as it starts sharing user information with its parent company.

WhatsApp said yesterday it would begin “coordinating” accounts with Facebook by sharing users’ mobile numbers and device information.

The potential monetisation of WhatsApp comes after it was sold in a blockbuster deal worth US$21.8 billion to Mark Zuckerberg’s firm in 2014.

WhatsApp is a major messaging service used by many Hongkongers. It had one billion users worldwide as of February, while Facebook had 1.7 billion users as of the second quarter of this year.

WhatsApp said Facebook would use a user’s phone number ­internally to better identify ­its users on the social networking site so it could recommend friends or show targeted ­advertising.

Facebook’s WhatsApp blasted for failing to protect users’ rights

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner said as of Friday night, it had not received any public complaints about the issue but had recorded a number of “isolated inquiries” by members of the public.

A spokeswoman urged users to pay “special attention” to the changes and take steps to control their data.

Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi said: “[We] would also like to encourage Facebook to consider offering simple and user-friendly ways to allow those WhatsApp users who do not wish their account information to be shared with Facebook to continue to use both social media platforms.”

K. P. Chow, associate director of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Information Security and Cryptography, said monetisation was inevitable among commercial technology enterprises.

“As long as they make the terms and conditions very clear and users have a certain period of notification, I don’t see any way that we can stop them,” he said, while questioning the impact on users.

“But what does it mean by opt-out? Does it mean we can’t use it any more, or there will be some limitations. We would have to read the terms and conditions quite carefully. As long as we have a way to say no ... for many people it will already be good enough.”

Avid WhatsApp users and friends Sze Wing-kei, Tang Wing-yun and Ng Hoi-lam, all 19, expressed unhappiness about the changes to the terms and conditions of their chat service.

“WhatsApp is convenient and we love chatting to each other,” Ng said. “But I like to keep my privacy,” Tang said. However, Ng said it was too hard to protest because “if we don’t like this, everyone is using it. We can’t stop using it”.

Sze said he would consider chatting elsewhere. “I might change to another app – Line [the South Korean messaging rival]!”

WhatsApp says current users have up to 30 days to accept the new policy terms or stop using the service. Once they accept, they have 30 more days to opt out of sharing with Facebook.

A Post reporter who was asked to accept the new terms and conditions by WhatsApp found the procedure confusing.

Users asked to share their account with Facebook are told: “Your chats and phone number will not be shared with Facebook regardless of this setting,” with “will not” in bold suggesting this option meant a person did not want to share his or her account.

It means in fact that you do, if you agree. The Post reporter has not yet found a way to reverse the decision.

Additional reporting by Associated Press