Since the beginning of January 2021, millions of WhatsApp users globally have received a notification from the popular messaging service platform, asking them to accept or decline a new software update initially intended to take effect on 8 February 2021.

Backlash and confusion

The new software update had many users re-thinking their stay in the app due to the major changes proposed with regard to data collection and sharing with Facebook, the app’s parent company. The update was met with backlash across the globe owing to what has been largely described as ‘unfortunate phrasing’ of the details of the update.

The confusion surrounding the announcement had notable effects, with numerous calls for users to ditch WhatsApp and switch to competitors such as Signal, a non-profit communication platform lauded for its focus on privacy, which became one of the most downloaded apps on both Android and iOS, even overwhelming its servers.

This prompted Whatsapp to push back the data-sharing enforcement deadline to 15th May, 2021 as they clear the air and the cloud of misinformation surrounding the proposed update. In a blogpost dated January 15th, Whatsapp reiterated its commitment to end-to-end encryption and assured its 2 Billion users of the security of their data on the app.

Whatsapp insists that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. The changes are related to optional business features on WhatsApp, and provides further transparency about how the company collects and uses data. This means that the privacy and security of your personal messages and calls do not change. They are protected by end-to-end encryption, and WhatsApp and Facebook cannot read or listen to them.

So what’s changing? Whatsapp is working to better support the over 175 million people who message a business account every day. The updates related to optional business features are a part of broader efforts to make communicating with a business secure, better, and easier for everyone. It includes:

  • Enabling customer service: People find it useful to chat with businesses to ask questions, to make a purchase, or get helpful information like purchase receipts. Whatsapp is making it easier to chat with businesses who may use Facebook business products. To respond to customers, some businesses need secure hosting services that Facebook plans to offer. When a business uses this service, Whatsapp will clearly label the chat so it’s up to you whether or not you message them.
  • Discovering a business: Often people discover businesses on Facebook or Instagram from ads that show a button you can click to message them using WhatsApp. Just like other ads on Facebook, if you choose to click on these ads, it may be used to personalize the ads you see on Facebook. Again, WhatsApp and Facebook cannot see the content of any end to end encrypted messages.
  • Shopping experiences: More people are shopping online, increasing as we are apart. Some businesses with a Shop on Facebook or Instagram can also have Shops on their WhatsApp business profile. This allows you to see a business’s products on Facebook and Instagram and shop from it directly in WhatsApp. If you choose to interact with Shops, Whatsapp will let you know, in the app, how your data is being shared with Facebook.

The information collected by the application according to WhatsApp, will not only help in providing services to the consumers but will also aid the service providers in assuring safety, security and integrity to the consumers thereby ensuring that consumers have professional and effective business interactions.

The company hopes the extra time will help it get a handle on the controversy and better improve its messaging around what’s actually changing.

Written by Faith Mwende & Dennis Njau