Irish privacy watchdog calls for urgent briefing over Facebook’s integration plans

The Irish Data Protection Commission has expressed serious concerns over Facebook's proposal to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger platforms to create "the best messaging experiences" for billions of users, stating that the sharing and merging of personal data between different Facebook companies can only be allowed if the merger is capable of meeting all of the requirements of the GDPR.

Late last week, The New York Times reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was toying with the idea of integrating the underlying technical infrastructure of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger with the objective of enabling up to 2.6 billion users of the three services to message each other across the said platforms.

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The integration, which is reportedly already in the works and is expected to be completed by next year, will involve the reconfiguration of the basic infrastructure of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. User data collected by the three platforms will be end-to-end encrypted and they will continue to function as standalone apps except for the fact that they will allow users to send direct messages via a common interface.

Sources told The New York Times that the planned integration would allow Facebook to retain user engagement levels within its ecosystem, will stop users from switching to messaging platforms offered by rival companies, will allow Facebook to increase its advertising revenue and introduce more revenue-generating services in the future.

The integration would also be a marked departure from Facebook's initial promise not to access user data on WhatsApp and Instagram for targeted advertising or other purposes. In May last year, Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp, quit after differences of opinion emerged between him and other Facebook executives over the collection and use of customer data as well as over the question of weakening encryption to give advertisers a wider base to target.

Zuckerberg may have initially agreed to Koum and co-founder Brian Acton's demands as Facebook had told the European Commissioner in 2014 that it would be unable to establish reliable automated matching between Facebook users' accounts and WhatsApp users' accounts. However, he may have used his clout to overcome the latter's' objections later on as in August 2016, WhatsApp updated its privacy policy and terms & conditions to include the ability to link WhatsApp users' phone numbers with Facebook users' identities.

In May 2017, the European Commission fined Facebook €110 million for lying to it in 2014 about its plans to share user data with WhatsApp. In October, the European Union's Data Protection Working Party initiated a probe into WhatsApp's new privacy policy, stating that the information presented by WhatsApp to its users on data sharing with Facebook was 'seriously deficient as a means to inform their consent'.

Responding to The New York Times' revelation, Facebook did not deny the integration plans, stating that it intends to build the best messaging experiences and find ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks.

"We want to build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private. We're working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks. As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work," the company said.

Irish privacy watchdog calls for urgent briefing

Responding to reports on Facebook's planned integration of the basic infrastructure of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger, the Irish Data Protection Commission issued a statement on Monday, asking Facebook Ireland to provide an urgent briefing on the company's plans.

"While we understand that Facebook’s proposal to integrate the Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram platforms is at a very early conceptual stage of development, the Irish DPC has asked Facebook Ireland for an urgent briefing on what is being proposed.

"The Irish DPC will be very closely scrutinising Facebook’s plans as they develop, particularly insofar as they involve the sharing and merging of personal data between different Facebook companies. Previous proposals to share data between Facebook companies have given rise to significant data protection concerns and the Irish DPC will be seeking early assurances that all such concerns will be fully taken into account by Facebook in further developing this proposal.

"It must be emphasised that ultimately the proposed integration can only occur in the EU if it is capable of meeting all of the requirements of the GDPR," the data privacy watchdog said.

Sam Curry, chief security officer at Cybereason, has called for anti-trust review and regulatory oversight over the planned integration, stating that the integration could result in monopolistic behaviour and could allow Facebook to leverage Big Data and inter-company APIs to pose further danger to user privacy.

"How Herculean will the task become when blame is diffused, architecture can be blamed and no one is looking out for the sins committed across inter-company APIs? Now is the time for anti-trust and oversight, much as we all loathe the option," he said.

"Who knew we had more to fear from Big Data than we did from Big Brother? At some point, we need to not only avoid monopolistic behavior but to actually forward and advance new and emerging rights that we should all have in a digital economy. As with most things, architecting early is easier than bolting features on artificially and messily later.

"At the very least, Mr. Zuckerberg should take advantage of the situation by leaning forward with a plan for privacy and be a hero instead of later suffering the consequences. This gamble doesn't have to be about who crosses the finish line first and can instead be about who brought all the benefits of Big Data without the privacy damaging possibilities of Giant Data," he added.

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