Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp has touted privacy as a core feature, but a damning report indicated that user conversations may not be so secure.
WhatsApp has treated privacy as a signature feature for users to join, but a report from ProPublica is undermining confidence in the company’s promises. “WhatsApp assures users that no one can see their messages — but the company has an extensive monitoring operation and regularly shares personal information with prosecutors,” ProPublica explained in a Tuesday report “How Facebook Undermines Privacy Protections for Its 2 Billion WhatsApp Users.”
The report observed that privacy is touted “so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.” However, it went on to torch WhatsApp by suggesting: “Those assurances are not true.”
The report described over a thousand workers who sift through and moderate mountains of user photos and messages:
WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore, where they examine millions of pieces of users’ content. Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through streams of private messages, images and videos that have been reported by WhatsApp users as improper and then screened by the company’s artificial intelligence systems.
WhatsApp reportedly “declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments,” ProPublica reported.
However, Facebook did reportedly explain to the outlet that “[t]he decisions we make around how we build our app are focused around the privacy of our users, maintaining a high degree of reliability and preventing abuse.” Giving up liberty for “a high degree of reliability,” however, is a trade many Americans would likely balk at.
Whistleblowers have reportedly corroborated claims that user privacy is indeed compromised when using the app. “The complaint, which ProPublica obtained, details WhatsApp’s extensive use of outside contractors, artificial intelligence systems and account information to examine user messages, images and videos. It alleges that the company’s claims of protecting users’ privacy are false.”
The lack of true privacy has reportedly led to tangible consequences: “WhatsApp user data, ProPublica has learned, helped prosecutors build a high-profile case against a Treasury Department employee who leaked confidential documents to BuzzFeed News that exposed how dirty money flows through U.S. banks.”
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