The German data protection regulator, assigned to look into Facebook's data protection practices, has signaled that action will soon be taken to prevent the company from collecting the personal data of WhatsApp users.
Johannes Caspar, the data protection officer of Hamburg, told Reuters that the data sharing policy between WhatsApp and Facebook will be investigated as the regulator has reason to believe that WhatsApp forced users to consent to the data sharing by not informing them about the privacy implications.
“We have reason to believe that the data sharing policy between WhatsApp and Facebook is being impermissibly enforced due to the lack of voluntary and informed consent,” Caspar said.
An administrative proceeding has been initiated against Facebook to prevent the two social media applications from exchanging user data on a mass scale. Authorities intend to arrive at a decision by May 15, the day when the integration between the two services is set to take place.
This is not the first time that data protection authorities have sounded alarms over Facebook's proposed integration with WhatsApp. As far back as in 2017, the European Union's Article 29 Data Protection Working Party announced a probe into Facebook's data-sharing plans with its subsidiary WhatsApp, 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 German data protection regulator's investigation into the proposed integration, a WhatsApp spokesperson told Reuters that the company's “recent update includes new options people will have to message a business on WhatsApp, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.”
“To be clear, by accepting WhatsApp’s updated terms of service, users are not agreeing to any expansion in our ability to share data with Facebook, and the update does not impact the privacy of their messages with friends or family,” they added. According to Caspar, the German data protection authority may impose a three-month freeze on WhatsApp's collection of user data.
Commenting on the latest developments in Germany, Ray Walsh, Digital Privacy Expert at ProPrivacy, says it seems clear that WhatsApp users’ data is being actively leveraged to inform Facebook’s marketing practices, and it is important for the European Data Protection Board to analyze those data flows closely to ascertain whether it is occurring in a way that is transparent, voluntary, and consensual.
"It is important to remember that the vast majority of the data that WhatsApp shares with Facebook was already being harvested according to its previous terms of service, and that while the new update extends the amount of data being shared, the issue of data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook is long-standing.
"That said it is, of course, positive to see Hamburg’s data-protection authority standing up to Facebook, and it will be interesting to see whether the temporary urgency procedure available within GDPR is extended following the three-month period," he adds.