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

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 7:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2015, 10:45pm

Facebook-owned WhatsApp is not doing a good enough job of protecting users’ rights, according to a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on civil liberties online.

The hugely popular mobile messaging app has three million users in Hong Kong, a city of around seven million people, but fails to respect the privacy of their data, the group said, stressing how the app does not notify users when the government requests access to their messages.

READ MORE: WhatsApp faces tough time in China

WhatsApp compared unfavourably to Apple, Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook and Yahoo, receiving one of the lowest scores on the EFF’s latest “Who Has Your Back” report. It has released the paper annually for the last five years. 

Companies were awarded points based on a series of measures. These include whether the companies notify users that the government is looking into their data, how long the companies store the data for, and how strictly they adhere to industry practices by requiring law enforcement agencies to provide warrants.

According to the report, WhatsApp fails on all counts. 

Facebook declined to comment on the matter.

Data protection became more of a hot button topic in the wake of the revelations made by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked details about the agency’s mass surveillance programmes in 2013. 

This prompted a change of attitude at Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, which all stopped handing over email records and other online data to law enforcement investigators without notifying users first, the Washington Post reported in May 2014.

Now, the five companies only consent to pass on the data in such a clandestine way if ordered to do so by a court of law.

Meanwhile, networking equipment company Cisco said in April that it would start releasing transparency reports twice a year to inform the public how often such agencies request access to their data. 

Awareness of privacy issues relating to WhatsApp is alarmingly low in Hong Kong, according to Jennifer Zhang, a project manager at the Transparency Project, which is run by the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school. 

“This hasn’t become a mainstream topic, but I think since Occupy [Central], concern over government surveillance may become mainstream,” she said, referring to the civil disobedience campaign that began in the city last September.

Hong Kong has a fairly strong system of checks and balances in place to protect people’s privacy, but lawmakers have recently been questioning their reach. 

The city introduced the Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance in 2006 to restrict the monitoring activities of local law enforcement agencies.

But at a Legislative Council committee meeting on a proposed amendment to the bill last month, Democratic Party lawmaker Sin Chung-kai asked if WhatsApp messages were covered by the restrictions in the bill.

Government representatives seemingly dodged Sin's question by claiming that if they were to reveal details, they could be abetting criminal behaviour.

But they added that the commissioner in charge of this field had not mentioned any surveillance of instant messaging apps in his annual reports.

READ MORE: Data requests to Google from Hong Kong government hit record high

Experts say people's privacy is still at risk, even though more social media companies are issuing transparency reports.

“I don’t think, as users, we can rely on such reports to guarantee our privacy,” said Michael Gazeley, managing director of internet security firm Network Box.

Even if WhatsApp were to change its policies and score highly on the EFF metric, “it doesn’t mean that when the government turns up with a legal warrant, they’re not going to hand over your data,” he said.

No messaging app can guarantee users’ privacy without end-to-end encryption and other forms of online security, he added.

Zhang said the Hong Kong government should do more to protect its citizens’ rights by releasing its own transparency reports and introducing independent oversight of its internet surveillance programmes.

Transparency may be harder to achieve as the city lacks a central mechanism showing what data requests the government has issued, according to comments made last month by a spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Office of the Government Chief Information Officer.