WhatsApp banned from sharing data with Facebook in Germany

Such an arrangement is only allowed if both companies make sure that people commit to it, German privacy watchdog says – which didn’t happen

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 27 September 2016 11:35 BST
Concern has been raised about the link between the two sites, which aids targeted adverts
Concern has been raised about the link between the two sites, which aids targeted adverts

WhatsApp’s hugely controversial data-sharing deal with Facebook is now officially banned in Germany.

The two companies announced last month that WhatsApp would start handing over data about its users to Facebook. Facebook would then use that data to help its ads, generating more information about the people using it.

That agreement caused huge outrage, with many people arguing that such an arrangement shouldn’t be allowed. What’s more, it caused embarrassment for WhatsApp, which has in the past committed to keeping data private and not using its platform for ads.

Those criticisms have now been echoed by the Hamburg data protection commissioner, which has issued an administrative order that officially bans Facebook from sharing information with WhatsApp across Germany.

The order “prohibits Facebook with immediate effect to collect and store data of German WhatsApp users”, according to a statement from the watchdog. “Facebook is also ordered to delete all data that has already been forwarded by WhatsApp,” it said.

The order had been taken out because the data-sharing deal was never done with the agreement of users of the two companies, the watchdog said.

Data can only be shared if both companies establish a legal basis to do so, it wrote. But Facebook doesn’t have any approval from WhatsApp users and the legal basis for the data sharing doesn’t exist.

The European Court of Justice recently suggested that international companies must comply with national data protection laws if they process data in those countries. Facebook markets its German-speaking business through a subsidiary in Hamburg, meaning that the city’s data protection watchdog can hand down orders to Facebook – though it remains to be seen whether it will actually comply with it.

“This administrative order protects the data of about 35 million WhatsApp users in Germany,” said Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, in a statement. “It has to be their decision, whether they want to connect their account with Facebook. Therefore, Facebook has to ask for their permission in advance. This has not happened.”

Mr Caspar pointed out that many users might not even have given their permission to either Facebook or WhatsApp.

How to opt out of new WhatsApp's terms of use

“In addition, there are many millions of people whose contact details were uploaded to WhatsApp from the user’s address books, although they might not even have a connection to Facebook or WhatsApp,” he said. “According to Facebook, this gigantic amount of data has not yet been collected.

“Facebook’s answer, that this has merely not been done for the time being, is cause for concern that the gravity of the data protection breach will have much a more severe impact.”

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