Used by billions of people around the world, Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp may not be as private as the world’s biggest social network says it is, according to a new ProPublica investigation.
The popular chat app proclaims privacy and claims it cannot read messages sent between users but it has reportedly hired teams of contractors around the world to read through WhatsApp messages and moderate the content.
Facebook employs “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, that are supposedly private or encrypted”, the report said.
ProPublica explained that because WhatsApp messages are encrypted, artificial intelligence systems “can’t automatically scan all chats, images and videos,” as they do on Facebook and Instagram.
On its FAQ page, WhatsApp says that it secures users’ privacy with end-to-end encryption, which “ensures only you and the person you’re communicating with can read or listen to what is sent, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp. This is because with end-to-end encryption, your messages are secured with a lock, and only the recipient and you have the special key needed to unlock and read them.”
The ProPublica report revealed that WhatsApp moderators gain access to private content when users hit the report button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service.
When a user reports abuse, WhatsApp moderators are sent “the most recent messages sent to you by the reported user or group”, according to WhatsApp’s FAQ page.
The company is accused of going even further and sharing certain private data with law enforcement agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Justice.
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This revelation comes after Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said repeatedly, while giving testimony before the U.S. Senate, that WhatsApp messages are not seen by the company or any third parties.
The app emphasized 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.”
Facebook acknowledged hiring the contractors who sift through content reported by WhatsApp users. The service’s own algorithms have flagged WhatsApp messages suspected of anything from fraud and child porn to potential terrorist plotting.
“WhatsApp provides a way for people to report spam or abuse, which includes sharing the most recent messages in a chat,” a WhatsApp spokeswoman said in a statement. “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.”