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WhatsApp is falling short in keeping people's messages private, says pressure group Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Facebook-owned company was singled out for criticism, along with Amazon

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 12 July 2017 16:30 BST
The Facebook and WhatsApp applications' icons are displayed on a smartphone on February 20, 2014 in Rome
The Facebook and WhatsApp applications' icons are displayed on a smartphone on February 20, 2014 in Rome (AFP/Getty)

WhatsApp's users are not being kept safe properly, according to a major new report.

Pressure group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has released its rankings of how tech companies are keeping their users' data secure and private. And the popular chat app was singled out for specific criticism for potentially letting governments look at people's private messages.

In general, the group said that it was encouraged by the work that had been done to protect users, and to be more transparent about how they were keeping people safe.

"Today, technology users expect tech companies to have transparency around government access to user data, and to stand up for user privacy when appropriate," the group wrote. And companies are increasingly meeting those expectations.

"But there are still many companies that lag behind, fail to enact best practices around transparency, or don’t prioritize standing up for user privacy."

In particular, it pointed to Amazon and WhatsApp. Both of those firms could be doing far better, it said.

"While both companies have adopted industry-accepted best practices of requiring a warrant for content, publishing law enforcement guidelines, and publishing a transparency report, and while we applaud both companies for advocating for reforms to overbroad NSA surveillance, these two companies are not acting as leaders in other criteria that we examine," the report read.

"They don’t have the strong public policies related to notifying users of government data requests that we have come to expect from tech companies, they don’t publicly promise to request judicial review of [gag orders], and they aren’t meeting our criterion about not selling out users. We urge both Amazon and WhatsApp to improve their policies in the coming year so they match the standards of other major online services."

The reference to "selling out users" is a new criterion in the EFF's report. It looks at whether the companies have policies and practices that stop its data from being used for surveillance, for instance.

Twitter, for example, has instituted a policy that explicitly prohibits it from selling user data on to law enforcement or surveillance agencies. But WhatsApp makes no such commitment.

The relevant part of the chat app's terms and conditions reads: "When we share information with third-party providers, we require them to use your information in accordance with our instructions and terms or with express permission from you".

The EFF said that "in accordance with our instructions" is too vague and that the company should do more to make clear who can buy people's data and how.

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