WhatsApp for iPhone pictured next to Messenger, Facebook's other messaging app. Image: Microsiervos/Flickr
Consumer privacy watchdogs filed a federal complaint Monday against Facebook over the tech titan's decision to begin harvesting phone numbers from its popular WhatsApp messaging service.The complaint, which was expected, was filed with the Federal Trade Commission, and accuses Facebook of violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits "unfair or deceptive acts or practices."
"When Facebook acquired WhatsApp, WhatsApp made a commitment to its users, to the Federal Trade Commission, and to privacy authorities around the world not to disclose user data to Facebook," Marc Rotenberg, President of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in a statement. "Now they have broken that commitment."Indeed, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for a whopping $19 billion, the two companies insisted that the social networking giant would keep the messaging service at arms-length. At the time, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum assured users that "privacy is coded into our DNA."But last Thursday, WhatsApp announced that it would begin sharing user phone numbers with its parent company Facebook in an effort to improve "ads and products experiences."Read more: How to prevent WhatsApp from giving Facebook your phone number for improved "ads and products experiences."To many WhatsApp users, not to mention consumer privacy advocates, the move amounted to a brazen betrayal of users who had been assured by the two companies that "nothing would change" about the messaging service's privacy practices.In a statement, Claire Gartland, Consumer Protection Counsel at EPIC, said that user phone numbers "may also be the single most valuable piece of personal data obtained by WhatsApp. WhatsApp users are required to provide a verified phone number to use the service. And the phone number provides a link to a vast amount of personal information."