Facebook Is Spying on 2 Billion WhatsApp Users. Here's What That Means

Thinking no one can see your WhatsApp messages? Think twice.
Derya Ozdemir
Whatsapp logo on a smartphone.stockcam/iStock

Facebook's encrypted messaging service WhatsApp may not be as private as you think it is, according to an exhaustive report published by ProPublica on Tuesday.

WhatsApp, which is the world's most popular global mobile messenger app with over two billion monthly active users, says its parent company Facebook can’t access conversations between users. However, it's also been reported that Facebook pays over 1,000 workers throughout the world to read and monitor supposedly private WhatsApp messages, throwing doubt on the social media giant's privacy practices.

The messaging app has had end-to-end encryption since 2016; however, there are some circumstances in which the messages can be read by these monitors. Apparently, Facebook's moderator contract business Accenture employs at least 1,000 moderators who review user-reported content that’s been identified by its machine learning algorithm, and ProPublica writes that they keep an eye on spam, disinformation, hate speech, potential terrorist threats, child sexual abuse material (CSAM), blackmail, and “sexually oriented businesses," among other things.

When someone reports a message, even if it's in a private chat, the machine learning algorithm will scan for suspicious behavior, and forward it, along with four previous messages plus any images or videos, to a real human for evaluation. WhatsApp moderators told ProPublica that the app's AI sends them an excessive amount of harmless posts, such as pictures of kids in baths. Each reviewer deals with up to 600 complaints per day, averaging less than a minute per instance.

According to the evaluation, the user can either be blocked, dismissed, or added to a watchlist, and unencrypted messages from users in the "proactive" list can be viewed along with other user data such as user's groups, phone number, unique phone ID, status message, battery level, and signal strength.

It's also known that the company shares some private data with law enforcement agencies. Moreover, ProPublica claimed that WhatsApp user data assisted prosecutors in building a high-profile case against a Treasury Department employee who leaked classified records to BuzzFeed News exposing how allegedly corrupt money flows through U.S. banks.

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WhatsApp head Will Cathcart, for example, has also stated in an op-ed for Wired earlier this year that the business submitted “400,000 reports to child safety authorities last year and people have been prosecuted as a consequence.”

All of these practices are stated in the users' privacy policy, according to ProPublica, but you need to go through it with a fine comb to find them. In response to the report, a WhatsApp spokeswoman told The Post that "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."

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