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UK forces Facebook to end data sharing with WhatsApp

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It has generated a lot of opposition, but the controversial data sharing agreement between Facebook and Whatsapp has been brought to heel by the intervention of the UK authorities.

The decision would have seen WhatsApp hand out information on all of its users to Facebook, letting the latter use data about people’s chats to inform its advertising. It would also have gone the other way – allowing companies to send WhatsApp’s to people based on things they’ve bought on Facebook, for instance.

But now the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has told the company that it needs to bring that arrangement to an end because it does not have “valid consent” from its users.

Facebook had looked to gain permission from its users to have their data used as part of the deal. But there was no real way of opting out – people could only do so within a short period of time, and even if users did opt out then some information would still be shared.

When the deal was announced, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she would investigate the changes in relation to data protection laws, and has now issued an update revealing Facebook has agreed to hold off using data from UK users.

“I had concerns that consumers weren’t being properly protected, and it’s fair to say the enquiries my team have made haven’t changed that view,” Ms Denham said in a statement.

“I don’t think users have been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with their information, and I don’t think WhatsApp has got valid consent from users to share the information.

“I also believe users should be given ongoing control over how their information is used, not just a 30-day window.”

The Information Commissioner said that users had a right to have control over their data and raise concerns if they felt it was being used in a way they did not agree to.

“We’ve set out the law clearly to Facebook, and we’re pleased that they’ve agreed to pause using data from UK WhatsApp users for advertisements or product improvement purposes,” she added.

“We have now asked Facebook and WhatsApp to sign an undertaking committing to better explaining to customers how their data will be used, and to giving users ongoing control over that information.

“We also want individuals to have the opportunity to be given an unambiguous choice before Facebook start using that information and to be given the opportunity to change that decision at any point in the future.”

Neither Facebook or WhatsApp have yet responded to the ICO’s update.

WhatsApp said its plan with regard to the changes was to begin sharing user information – including phone numbers – with the “Facebook family of companies”, but would not make data public or share it with advertisers.

“We think consumers deserve a greater level of information and protection, but so far Facebook and WhatsApp haven’t agreed. If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, they may face enforcement action from my office,” Ms Denham concluded.

“We all rely on digital services for important parts of our lives, whether it’s keeping in touch with loved ones or doing our weekly shop. But our digital comings and goings create rich portraits of our lives, and vague terms of service when we sign up aren’t giving us the protection we need.”