Facebook paid $22 billion for WhatsApp’s user data, and now it’s getting it

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Facebook paid $22 billion for WhatsApp’s user data, and now it’s getting it
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Facebook didn’t pony up $22 billion for WhatsApp just for its messaging app. Facebook was exchanging one type of currency for another that it’s been able to convert into billions: data. And now it’s getting it.

WhatsApp updated its privacy policy on Thursday to state that it will now be sharing people’s account information — but not their messages — with Facebook, unless people follow these steps to opt out within 30 days.

That means Facebook will be able to match the phone numbers people submit when signing up for WhatsApp to the ones they may have attached to their Facebook profiles to connect those accounts. Facebook will be able to use that connection and the data it gets from WhatsApp, like people’s contact lists, to figure out which ads or other content to show people on Facebook.

It’s a clever way to honor the letter, but not necessarily the spirit, of the pledge WhatsApp made to its users shortly after the Facebook deal was announced in February 2014.

“Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible: You don’t have to give us your name and we don’t ask for your email address. We don’t know your birthday. We don’t know your home address. We don’t know where you work. We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that,” WhatsApp wrote in a company blog post in March 2014.

This remains true. But WhatsApp doesn’t need any of that data. For 1.7 billion people around the world — a good number of which are likely among WhatsApp’s one billion users — Facebook already has it.

Thursday’s privacy policy changes appear to mark the first and second steps in Facebook doing with WhatsApp what it has spent the past few years doing with Instagram.

Step 1) Find a way to match someone across their Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Step 2) Use that match to accumulate more data about that person.
Step 3) Apply that data in targeting that person with ads and content recommendations on both Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook is already approaching step three with WhatsApp. In January, WhatsApp said some time this year it will start testing ways for businesses to send messages to people using its service. It didn’t explicitly say businesses would pay for the privilege — qualifying these messages as ads — but that seems to be the gist. And WhatsApp doubled-down on that plan with Thursday’s privacy policy update.

In a section titled “Commercial Messaging,” WhatsApp tells businesses they will be able to send messages with “order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing.”

“Messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you. We do not want you to have a spammy experience; as with all of your messages, you can manage these communications, and we will honor the choices you make,” according to WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy, which doesn’t outline how people will be able to manage these marketing messages.

This sounds a lot like how Facebook has started bringing ads into its home-grown messaging service, Messenger. After opening up Messenger to business messages like order receipts and shipping notifications in 2015, this year Facebook started testing a way for businesses to pay to send messages to people who are already connected to them on Messenger.


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