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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

WhatsApp’s violation of privacy law partly resolved after investigation by data protection authorities

January 28, 2013

Canadian and Dutch data privacy guardians release findings from
investigation of popular mobile app

OTTAWA and THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Jan. 28, 2013 /PRNewswire/ – The Office of
the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) and the Dutch Data Protection
Authority (College bescherming persoonsgegevens, (CBP)) today released their findings from a collaborative investigation
into the handling of personal information by WhatsApp Inc., a
California-based mobile app developer.

The coordinated investigation is a global first, as two national data
protection authorities conducted their work together to examine the
privacy practices of a company with hundreds of millions of customers
worldwide. This marks a milestone in global privacy protection.

“Our Office is very proud to mark an important world-first along with
our Dutch counterparts, especially in light of today’s increasingly
online, mobile and borderless world,” said Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy
Commissioner of Canada. “Our investigation has led to WhatsApp making
and committing to make further changes in order to better protect
users’ personal information.”

Jacob Kohnstamm, Chairman of the Dutch Data Protection Authority, adds:
“But we are not completely satisfied yet. The investigation revealed
that users of WhatsApp – apart from iPhone users who have iOS 6
software – do not have a choice to use the app without granting access
to their entire address book. The address book contains phone numbers
of both users and non-users. This lack of choice contravenes (Dutch and
Canadian) privacy law. Both users and non-users should have control
over their personal data and users must be able to freely decide what
contact details they wish to share with WhatsApp.”

Key findings and outcomes

The investigation focused on WhatsApp’s popular mobile messaging
platform, which allows users to send and receive instant messages over
the Internet across various mobile platforms. While WhatsApp was found
to be in contravention of Canadian and Dutch privacy laws, the
organization has taken steps to implement many recommendations to make
its product safer from a privacy standpoint. At this time however,
outstanding issues remain to be fully addressed.

The investigation revealed that WhatsApp was violating certain
internationally accepted privacy principles, mainly in relation to the
retention, safeguard, and disclosure of personal data. For example:

        --  In order to facilitate contact between application users,
            WhatsApp relies on a user's address book to populate
            subscribers' WhatsApp contacts list. Once users consent to the
            use of their address book, all phone numbers from the mobile
            device are transmitted to WhatsApp to assist in the
            identification of other WhatsApp users. Rather than deleting
            the mobile numbers of non-users, WhatsApp retains those numbers
            (in a hash form). This practice contravenes Canadian and Dutch
            privacy law which holds that information may only be retained
            for so long as it is required for the fulfilment of an
            identified purpose. Only iPhone users running iOS6 on their
            devices have the option of adding contacts manually rather than
            uploading the mobile address numbers of their address books to
            company servers automatically.

        --  At the time the investigation began, messages sent using
            WhatsApp's messenger service were unencrypted, leaving them
            prone to eavesdropping or interception, especially when sent
            through unprotected Wi-Fi networks. In September 2012, in
            partial response to our investigation, WhatsApp introduced
            encryption to its mobile messaging service.

        --  Over the course of the investigation, it was found that
            WhatsApp was generating passwords for message exchanges using
            device information that can be relatively easily exposed. This
            created the risk that a third party may send and receive
            messages in the name of users without their knowledge. WhatsApp
            has since strengthened its authentication process in the latest
            version of its app, using a more secure randomly generated key
            instead of generating passwords from MAC (Media Acess Control)
            or IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity)
            numbers (which uniquely identify each device on a network) to
            generate passwords for device to application message exchanges.
            Anyone who has downloaded WhatsApp, whether they are active
            users or not, should update to the latest version to benefit
            from this security upgrade.

Next steps

The OPC and CBP have worked closely together, but have issued separate
reports, respecting each country’s data protection law (Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and the Dutch Data Protection Act (Wet bescherming persoonsgegevens (Wbp)).  Following the issuance of their respective reports of findings, the
OPC and CBP will pursue outstanding matters independently.

Following investigation, the Dutch Data Protection Act provides for a
second phase in which the CBP will examine whether the breaches of law
continue and will decide whether it will take further enforcement
actions. The Dutch legal framework contains the possibility to enforce
the Dutch privacy law by imposing sanctions.

Under Canada’s PIPEDA, the OPC will monitor the company’s progress in
meeting commitments made in the course of investigation. In most cases,
companies are cooperative in meeting their obligations, and WhatsApp
has demonstrated a willingness to fully comply with the OPC’s
recommendations. Unlike the CBP, the OPC does not have order making
powers.

SOURCE Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada


Source: PR Newswire