Facebook’s encrypted messaging service WhatsApp isn’t as private as it claims, according to a new report.
The popular chat app, which touts its privacy features, says parent Facebook can’t read messages sent between users. But an extensive report by ProPublica on Tuesday claims that Facebook is paying more than 1,000 contract workers around the world to read through and moderate WhatsApp messages that are supposedly private or encrypted.
What’s more, the company reportedly shares certain private data with law enforcement agencies, such as the US Department of Justice.
The revelation comes after Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that WhatsApp messages are not seen by the company.
“We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp,” the CEO said during a testimony before the US Senate in 2018.
Privacy is touted even when new users sign up for the service, with the app flagging that “your messages and calls are secured so only you and the person you’re communicating with can read or listen to them, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp.”
“Those assurances are not true,” said the ProPublica report. “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.”
Facebook acknowledged that those contractors spend their days sifting through content that WhatsApp users and the service’s own algorithms flag, and they often include everything from fraud and child porn to potential terrorist plotting.
A WhatsApp spokeswoman told The Post: “WhatsApp provides a way for people to report spam or abuse, which includes sharing the most recent messages in a chat. This feature is important for preventing the worst abuse on the internet. We strongly disagree with the notion that accepting reports a user chooses to send us is incompatible with end-to-end encryption.”
According to WhatsApps’s FAQ page, when a user reports abuse, WhatsApp moderators are sent “the most recent messages sent to you by the reported user or group.” ProPublica explained that because WhatsApp’s messages are encrypted, artificial intelligence systems “can’t automatically scan all chats, images and videos, as they do on Facebook and Instagram.”
Instead, the report revealed that WhatsApp moderators gain access to private content when users hit the “report” button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service.
This forwards five messages, including the allegedly offending one, along with the four previous ones in the exchange — plus any images or videos — to WhatsApp in unscrambled form, according to unnamed former WhatsApp engineers and moderators, who spoke to ProPublica.
Aside from the messages, the workers see other unencrypted information such as names and profile images of a user’s WhatsApp groups, as well as their phone number, profile photo status message, phone battery level, language and any related Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Each reviewer handles upward of 600 complaints a day, which gives them less than a minute per case. Reviewers can either do nothing, place the user on “watch” for further scrutiny or ban the account.
ProPublica said that WhatsApp shares metadata, or unencrypted records that can reveal a lot about a user’s online activity, with law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice.
The outlet claimed that WhatsApp user data helped prosecutors build a high-profile case against a Treasury Department employee who leaked confidential documents to BuzzFeed News that exposed how dirty money allegedly flows through US banks.
Like other social media platforms, WhatsApp is caught between users who expect privacy and law enforcement that demand that such platforms hand over information that will help fight crime and online abuse.
WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart said in a recent interview that there’s no conflict of interest.
“I think we absolutely can have security and safety for people through end-to-end encryption and work with law enforcement to solve crimes,” Cathcart said in a YouTube interview with an Australian think tank in July.
But the privacy issue isn’t that simple. Since Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, Zuckerberg has repeatedly assured users he would keep data private. Since then the company has walked a tightrope when it comes to privacy and monetizing data it collects from users of the free messaging app.
In 2016, WhatsApp disclosed it would begin sharing user data with Facebook, a move that would allow it to generate revenue. The plan included sharing information such as users’ phone numbers, profile photos, status messages and IPO addresses, so that Facebook could offer better friend suggestions and serve up more relevant ads, among other things.
Such actions put Facebook on the radar of regulators, and in May 2017, European Union antitrust regulators fined the company $122 million for falsely claiming three years earlier that it would be impossible to link the user information between WhatsApp and the Facebook family of apps. Facebook said its false statements in 2014 were not intentional but it didn’t contest the fine.
Facebook continued to be the target of security and privacy issues over time. In July 2019, that culminated in an eye-popping $5 billion fine by the Federal Trade Commission for violating a previous agreement to protect user privacy.
The fine was almost 20 times greater than any previous privacy-related penalty, the FTC said at the time, and Facebook’s wrongdoing included “deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.”
Regardless, WhatsApp is still in the throes of trying to figure a way to make money while guarding privacy. In 2019, the app announced it would run ads inside the app, but those controversial plans were abandoned days before the ads were set to launch.
The concerns sparked massive backlash, causing tens of millions of users to move to rival apps such as Signal and Telegram.
WhatsApp pressed forward with the change in February, but assured users that messages would remain private.
“We’ve seen some of our competitors try to get away with claiming they can’t see people’s messages — if an app doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default that means they can read your messages,” WhatsApp said on its blog. “Other apps say they’re better because they know even less information than WhatsApp. We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data.”