Recently security researchers revealed a major security hole in WhatsApp for Android which allowed hackers to read people’s private conversations. While that issue is concerning enough, there is always the chance that Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) will start selling data from users’ private WhatsApp chats to advertisers—and the security hole could offer Facebook a way to do it.
How Facebook could use WhatsApp’s data
We mentioned recently some privacy concerns regarding Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB)’s planned acquisition of WhatsApp. Now that this security hole has been uncovered, those concerns may be even more warranted, as Facebook already essentially has a portal into WhatsApp so that it can read users’ conversations. Of course the companies say they’re working to close the hole, as they should, but will Facebook keep the hole open for itself while shutting it for third parties?
The security issue basically occurs when Android users have a malicious app on their device, which gives other apps access to the whole thing—including WhatsApp. Developers of the malicious app could then basically download and read anyone’s supposedly private WhatsApp conversations.
Rob Shavell of Abine suggests that while Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) may be motivated to close the security hole for others, it could find a way to use that hole for its own purposes. After all, the social network still must validate what many see as a high price for WhatsApp.
“The interesting thing is, once Facebook does that and helps these guys out with closing that gap, the interesting thing is, are they going to in the next three months as they figure out how to get the most out of the $19 billion that they used to purchase WhatsApp,” Shavell told ValueWalk in an interview.
Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) did not return our request for comment on this story.
Will Facebook change WhatsApp’s privacy practices?
He believes Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) may be motivated enough to find a way to use the security hole in Android apps to be able to access WhatsApp users’ conversations after the deal between the two companies closes. He questions whether the social network will open up that information to its ad sales team and allow people to look at keywords from chat conversations and then match them up to Facebook profiles.
Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has said it currently has no plans to change anything about WhatsApp, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t have plans to do so later. An examination of Facebook’s privacy policies makes it clear that the company could and probably is using information from people’s chat sessions on its website and app.
“They reserve the right to use and any of content they have the right access and use any of this content, ‘any’ being the important three-letter word,” Shavell said. “And they have the right to share it with their ‘approved partners,’ whatever that means.
And once WhatsApp is part of Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB), it could be lumped together under those privacy practices. Shavell notes that the social network has said that it keeps information from being linked to specific user names in order to be able to say that it is providing privacy, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t be added to an advertising list for certain keywords because of what they are talking about in their chat sessions on Facebook.
Paranoia or privacy?
So should users be concerned about privacy or not when it comes to their online activities? Many will say that they have nothing to hide and that it isn’t a big deal. But then there’s the annoyance of being added to a list because you mentioned the words “engagement” or “marriage” in passing because a friend is getting married. It could, in some ways, be considered akin to telemarketing back in the days before the Do Not Call list was initiated. Of course ignoring ads is still less annoying than receiving a telemarketing call. So why are so many concerned about online privacy? It’s about control.
“It’s not paranoid for users to be concerned about this stuff because it’s actually happening. It is absolutely a big deal because we have no control over it,” Shavell said. “That’s the reason.”
For users who are concerned about privacy, Shavell recommends not linking their actual phone number to their WhatsApp account. Some options might be to get a Skype number and use that. Abine also offers a service which gives users a separate phone number to use so that their private conversations are not linked to their real profiles.