Despite the platform’s bold privacy claims, a report by an investigative non-profit suggests that Facebook can access the WhatsApp conversations of users to a much larger extent than many might realize. WhatsApp has been at the center of intense scrutiny ever since Facebook’s U-turn over data sharing with the messaging platform’s parent company. Even though WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption makes it one of the safest communication services, Facebook’s recent endeavors have stirred multiple privacy debates over the years.
According to ProPublica, Facebook employs content reviewers that can read private messages and see exchanged media, including images and videos, using special software created by the social media giant. Just to be clear here, these content moderators can only access contents of a WhatsApp chat when it is reported for reasons that fall under the platform’s policy violation guidelines. Even though content moderation to look for objectionable material such as child abuse imagery and terror-linked discourse may not sound alarming, what is concerning is that WhatsApp’s content moderators can access more than just the reported message.
Citing interactions with former engineers and reviewers, the report mentions that these moderators can access a total of five messages — the reported message itself and the four preceding it, which can either be text or media. WhatsApp policies haven’t publicly revealed how many encrypted messages can be viewed by these content reviewers, and the company is also yet to publicly disclose that it hires contractors like Accenture to review content. The content reviewers are said to check millions of conversations each week, and they can accordingly take three actions — pass on it, place the user on a “watch” for future scrutiny, or ban the account.
Moreover, WhatsApp officials are said to maintain a permanent log of certain users’ communications which includes details of who they are talking to and the frequency of chats for internal investigations as well as at the request of law enforcement authorities. Irrespective of the setting (nobody, everybody, and only contacts) users choose for showing their profile picture or the last time they were online, WhatsApp still collects all that data without explicitly saying so. The claims made by ProPublica aren’t explicitly tantamount to breaking end-to-end encryption, but they suggest there is a lot of sensitive activities happening behind the doors that users might not be aware of.