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Explainer: This is what WhatsApp knows about you

Read what's in the app's new privacy policy

SAMAA | - Posted: Jan 8, 2021 | Last Updated: 1 year ago
Posted: Jan 8, 2021 | Last Updated: 1 year ago

Photo: AFP

WhatsApp recently updated its privacy policy, forcing users to accept their data will be shared with Facebook, or else their accounts will be deleted.

Data being shared? What does that mean? What data are we talking about?

All websites and apps (services) that we use know some things about us. The most basic piece of information is when we opened the service, how long we used it and when we left. It would be hard to find a service, online or offline, that doesn’t monitor its own usage this way.

Some pieces of information are so commonly shared with online services, they are effectively public information – your IP address and what browser you are using. More sophisticated services know much more about you. What device are you using – a PC, a laptop, a phone or a tablet? Is it HP or Apple or Huawei?

There is the information we provide the service ourselves, whether voluntarily or because we can’t use the service without giving these details. When signing up for a service, we might share items like our names, email addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and so on. What we do in the process of using the service is also recorded, such as liking a friend’s picture on Facebook or commenting below this article (shameless plug here).

What data any app or website stores about us, how data is stored and what data is used for are technical questions that most users choose simply not to think about. We are all too eager to use the app, and many others that are connected either by a common owner, Facebook, or by data-sharing agreements.

The main purpose to storing data is to deliver whatever services the website or app offers, such as sending and receiving messages on WhatsApp or reading this article and discussing it with others. Of course, much more can be and is done with this data, which we’ll get into in another article.

Let’s have a look at what data WhatsApp collects about you.

Information you provide

When you sign up, you must provide a name and a working mobile number. Most people use their real names. The mobile number you provide is verified by sending an SMS, so you cannot use a fake number. This is the basic information that WhatsApp uses to identify you, to which it connects all the other information it has on you.

When you WhatsApp for the first time on any phone, the app asks to access your contact list. It uses this information to determine which other WhatsApp users you know. The app uploads all details of your contacts: names, numbers, email addresses, home addresses and birthdays, anything that’s saved on your phone. That’s right – information about other people.

These people may be using WhatsApp or they might not be, but their information is being shared with WhatsApp, without their knowledge. This information gets updated a few times a day, so the new colleague whose number you saved an hour ago has also been added to the database.

As a saving grace, the privacy policy says information about non-users is not stored on their servers.

If you update your WhatsApp status, you can be sure the app sees it, even if no one else does.

Your messages are the largest chunk of information you “give” the app. However, the privacy policy and terms of service repeatedly mention that all communications are end-to-end encrypted. This means that every message you send is encrypted on your phone and can only be converted into readable language when it reaches the phone of the person you are talking to.

The policy also says that messages are not stored on company servers, unless the recipient is offline and the message has not yet been delivered, or pictures and videos are forwarded. In other words, there is nothing to worry about when forwarding cat videos, but you certainly want to think twice before forwarding personal photographs.

Information WhatsApp collects automatically

WhatsApp collects information about your device. It knows whether you use an iPhone SE (2nd generation), a Samsung Galaxy A12 or a Redmi Note 9. It knows whether you use iOS 14.3, Android 10 or another operating system. This information is used to customise the app to your phone and make sure it runs smoothly.

The app tracks the strength of the network signal on your phone and uses this information to adjust the quality of video and audio during calls. It even watches your battery levels. Have you ever run low on battery during a video call? The person you’re talking to will be told that your battery is dying!

If you share your current location or live location with someone, not only does that person know where you are, WhatsApp does too. It already knew which country, city and area you are in, since it has your IP address and signal information, but now it knows exactly where you are.

Frightened yet? Hold on tight, there’s more coming.

WhatsApp wants to know how you’re connected to the Internet. It tracks what your mobile number is, even if it is different from the one you registered with. You just moved to Turkey for your studies? Big Brother knows your Turkish number, even though you’re still using your Pakistani number for WhatsApp.

WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram use device identifiers to identify users across services. Imran Ali (fake name) uses Facebook as (fake email address), WhatsApp as +92 351 032 8787 (fake number) and Instagram as (fake email address). When he uses all three accounts on the same phone, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram all know who he is on the other two apps.

Other identifiers track what devices you use. That means WhatsApp knows you use a laptop at home, a PC at the office and a tablet when you go out for tea, along with the 8-inch friend in your pocket.

WhatsApp is the nosy neighbor who keeps a track of when you open the app, how long you use and when you close it. That’s how it can show you that your classmate was “Last seen at 9:13pm”.

Information gathered from other people

Remember how WhatsApp uploads your entire contact list? It gets the same information from other users as well, so your birthday and email address might already be on file, even though you never shared these details.

WhatsApp offers business accounts for companies to use its services to communicate with customers. It also offers hosting and storage services to these business accounts using Facebook’s servers.

If your favorite restaurant or e-commerce store uses Facebook servers to store its data, that data might be shared with Facebook and WhatsApp. This could include the order you placed for a pizza or new shoes via the chat feature, or the complaint you made about your cable service being grainy.

WhatsApp doesn’t provide all its services by itself. Many functions are outsourced to other companies, for example, the app is distributed to users via App Store, Play Store and other stores. The company often finds out about service issues through these stores, which sometimes requires identification, location and usage data to be shared with these companies, whom you didn’t know would be receiving your information.

WhatsApp gets support with their infrastructure, engineering, cybersecurity and other areas from third parties. The policy says that these service providers receive and collect data, but doesn’t tell us what data is shared or how the shared data is protected.

Do you know of any other information that WhatsApp collects on its users? Let us know in the comments below.

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