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WhatsApp agrees not to share user data with Facebook

WhatsApp has said it will not share user data with parent company Facebook prompting the UK’s privacy watchdog to drop an investigation into the company.

The messaging service has signed an “undertaking” with data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), publicly committing to not share personal data with Facebook, which acquired WhatsApp in 2014.

The decision by Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham means WhatsApp, which has 1.5 billion monthly users, will not be fined and that any future sharing of user data would be governed by European privacy rules that enter into force in May.

The decision comes soon after similar moves by the French data privacy watchdog, which ordered WhatsApp to stop sharing user data with Facebook in December. 

“I am pleased to state that WhatsApp has now signed an ‘undertaking’ wherein they have given a public commitment not to share personal data with Facebook,” she said in a blog post while saying the move should “build trust” among UK users.

“I would also like to stress that signing an undertaking is not the end of story and I will closely monitor WhatsApp’s adherence to it,” Denham added.

The ICO launched an investigation into WhatsApp in 2016 over whether the app could legally share data with Facebook, after concerns were raised that the firm was not being “fully transparent” over its plans.

The ICO said its investigation has found that had the firm shared user data, it would have been illegal.

The decision marks an important resolution for Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, which is under fire in the US over the propagation of so-called ‘fake news during campaigning for the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook is also under scrutiny over its handling of user data to target online advertising – a business that it, together with Google, has come to dominate globally.

The signing of the undertaking means that it will not share any EU user data until the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force in May.

The regulations will replace existing data protection laws and are designed to strengthen user control over their personal data and how it is used.

Denham confirmed one type of data sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp – a technical practice known as a “data processor” where sharing is done as a support service to WhatsApp – could continue, as it was not usually a data privacy issue.

“This is common practice and if done consistently with the law, under contract, does not generally raise data protection concerns,” she said.

“Data protection law does not prevent a company from sharing personal data – they just have to follow the legal requirements.”

In a statement, a WhatsApp spokesman said: “WhatsApp cares deeply about the privacy of our users. We collect very little data and every message is end-to-end encrypted.

“As we’ve repeatedly made clear for the last year, we are not sharing data in the ways that the UK information commissioner has said she is concerned about, anywhere in Europe.”

In January WhatsApp launched a business-oriented app, marking a move towards eventual monetisation of the service.

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