WhatsApp launches privacy campaign after user backlash

WhatsApp has launched its first major privacy advertising campaign in the UK.

The move follows a backlash from customers who announced changes to its terms and conditions earlier this year.

The platform also said it was strongly resisting pressure from governments, including the UK, to compromise the way it encrypts messages.

WhatsApp chief executive Will Cathcart told the BBC that authorities should “demand more security”, not less.

“The first step to protecting people is you have to have strong security, and we don’t think the government should be trying to encourage tech companies to provide weak security,” he said.

“They should be trying to encourage or even force companies to provide as much security as possible.”

The marketing campaign is being rolled out internationally, starting in the UK and Germany on Monday.

WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, meaning messages can only be read on the device that sends and receives them. WhatsApp itself – and by default its parent company Facebook – cannot see or intercept them, nor can law enforcement.

Home Minister Priti Patel has called the use of end-to-end encryption “unacceptable” in the fight against illegal content sharing.

In a speech in April, she said she wanted the use to be “consistent with public protection and the safety of children”, but did not explain how that would work.

Facebook has said it intends to further expand encryption in its other services.

WhatsApp is already blocked in mainland China and is suing the Indian government over new digital rules that would force it to violate its privacy rules. Of the 2 billion users worldwide, about 400 million are in India.

Mr. Cathcart said he was “living in the reality” that other countries could also decide to block the platform as regulations tighten in the tech sector around the world.

Tough crackdown on illegal content

While the company cannot see the content of messages, it has developed other tools to block illegal material and widely circulated misinformation.

Mr. Cathcart said WhatsApp blocks 2 million accounts a month, and in 2020 the platform reported 300,000 images to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

It uses reports from message recipients as well as unencrypted data that WhatsApp can view for machine learning, such as the volume of messages an account sends and the number of groups it joins.

Messages that were previously forwarded multiple times are now flagged and the number of people a user can share the same message with is limited.

Confusion over terms and conditions

In January this year, thousands of users threatened to quit WhatsApp because they mistakenly believed it would start sharing message data with Facebook after it announced changes to its terms and conditions.

It was said that those who did not accept the update would start losing features.

It was falsely claimed that changes to the privacy of personal data were imminent and thousands of people flocked in panic to rival services such as Signal and Telegram.

In fact, the changes largely relate to the ability for businesses to accept payments via WhatsApp.

Will Cathcart said the company was responsible for the “confusion” caused by the announcement.

“To reiterate, nothing about our update has changed in terms of people’s privacy,” he said.

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