According to a new report, Facebook’s encrypted messaging app WhatsApp is not as private as the company claims.
The popular chat app, which prides itself on its privacy safeguards, claims that parent company Facebook cannot see conversations transmitted between users. However, a comprehensive study published Tuesday by ProPublica alleges that Facebook pays over 1,000 contract workers worldwide to read and review WhatsApp communications that are supposedly private or encrypted.
Even when new users sign up for the service, the program emphasizes that “your messages and calls are secured so only you and the person you’re communicating with can read or listen to them, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp.”
“Those assurances are not true,” said the ProPublica in a statement. “WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin, and Singapore, where they examine millions of pieces of users’ content.”
Facebook admits that those contractors spend their days sorting through content flagged by WhatsApp users and the service’s algorithms, which frequently include everything from fraud and child pornography to possible terrorist plots.
According to a WhatsApp spokesperson, “WhatsApp provides a way for people to report spam or abuse, which includes sharing the most recent messages in a chat. This feature is important for preventing the worst abuse on the internet. We strongly disagree with the notion that accepting reports a user chooses to send us is incompatible with end-to-end encryption.”
WhatsApp moderators are emailed “the most recent messages sent to you by the reported user or group” when a user reports abuse, according to the company’s FAQ page. According to ProPublica, because WhatsApp messages are encrypted, artificial intelligence systems “can’t automatically scan all chats, images, and videos, as they do on Facebook and Instagram.”
The investigation found that WhatsApp moderators acquire access to private content when users click the app’s “report” button, indicating that a message violates the platform’s terms of service.
Former WhatsApp engineers and moderators who talked to ProPublica confirmed that five messages are shared after the report is clicked, including the allegedly problematic one, along with the four prior ones in the exchange, as well as any photos or videos, in unscrambled form.
In addition, ProPublica claims that WhatsApp shares metadata with the Department of Justice and other law enforcement organizations. Metadata are unencrypted records that can reveal a great deal about a user’s online behavior. However, WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart recently stated that there is no conflict of interest.