February 20, 2014, 11:11 AM — WhatsApp users should switch to a more secure messaging service now that it is being bought by Facebook, a German data protection commissioner urged Thursday.
Facebook announced on Wednesday that it plans to acquire WhatsApp, a mobile messaging service with about 450 million monthly users, for US$12 billion in shares, $4 billion in cash as well as $3 billion in stock options.
The deal could raise important data protection issues because the personal data of its users will likely be merged with Facebook data, said Thilo Weichert, data protection commissioner for the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.
When communication metadata and content of both services is merged, it can be used for profiling and commercially exploited for advertising purposes, Weichert said.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on Weichert's concerns and referred to Facebook's conference call about the acquisition on Wednesday, in which Facebook said that WhatsApp will continue to be run as an independent business.
WhatsApp said in a blog post on Wednesday "nothing" will change for users.
WhatsApp also says it will not use that information itself for commercial or marketing messages without consent, "except as part of a specific program or feature for which users will have the ability to opt-in or opt-out."
It says it also may use both personally identifiable information and certain non-personally identifiable information (such as anonymous user usage data, cookies, IP addresses, browser type, clickstream data, etc.) to improve the quality and design of its site and service as well as to create new features, promotions, functionality, and services by storing, tracking, and analyzing user preferences and trends.
In addition to having issues with possible profiling, Weichert also highlighted that both companies are based in the U.S., where there are less strict data protection laws than in Europe. He added that the services "refuse to comply with European and German data protection requirements."
German data protection authorities and consumer organizations have been embroiled in privacy litigation with Facebook for years.