Molefe Seeletsa
Digital Journalist
3 minute read
14 May 2021
11:13 am

One day before WhatsApp privacy policy update kicks in – how safe are you? 

Molefe Seeletsa

The Information Regulator is considering taking the legal route over WhatsApp's new terms and privacy policy.

Picture: iStock

As the deadline looms for WhatsApp users to accept the platform’s new terms and privacy policy, the Information Regulator (IR) is considering taking the legal route over privacy issues.

“Under the circumstances the regulator is briefing attorneys to prepare an opinion on the way forward in terms of litigation,” the body said in a statement on Thursday.

This is after talks broke down between the regulator and WhatsApp LLC.

Both parties failed to reach an agreement for the privacy policy in South Africa to be revised to the standard used for countries in the European Union (EU).

The IR raised its concerns in January this year after WhatsApp announced its new terms of service, to which the regulator indicated that it should be compliant with the provisions of the Protection of Private Information Act (POPIA).

ALSO READ: WhatsApp sets another deadline for users, this time 15 May

“It remains the regulator’s assertion that the POPIA has a privacy regime which is very similar to the EU regime and therefore believes WhatsApp should adopt the EU policy in South Africa and other countries in the global south that have similar regimes.

“The regulator remains of the view that despite WhatsApp operating in different legal and regulatory environments, there are effectively two privacy policies for users of WhatsApp. There are substantial differences between the policies for users living in Europe compared to the one for users living outside of Europe.”

The IR further confirmed it has since asked the portfolio committee on justice and correctional services to request Facebook South Africa  and WhatsApp to appear in Parliament.

‘Destructive policy’

Speaking to The Citizen on Friday morning, World Wide Worx founder and tech expert Arthur Goldstuck described WhatsApp’s terms and privacy policy as “destructive”.

“The policy itself is destructive. That’s why the Information Regulator is taking a strong stance against it. There is always a need to evaluate the extent to which users are exposed to vulnerabilities in terms of the data protection laws and policies not just South Africa, but around the world in general,” he said.

In an article titled It’s impossible for Facebook users to protect themselves from data exploitation published on The Conversation in 2018, David Glance, director of the University of Western Australia Centre for Software Practice, highlighted how large tech companies were not committed to protecting users’ data.

READ MORE: How safe is your personal information?

“The simple fact of the matter is that as long as for-profit companies make their money out of advertising, they will try to make that advertising as effective as possible by gathering ever more detailed personal and behavioural information about their users to target ads and make them more effective.

“Social media and search companies such as Facebook and Google have little incentive other than the risk of government regulation and fines to limit the amount and types of information collected or the ways in which this information is used to target users with ads,” Glance said.

WhatsApp update

According to the update, WhatsApp is requesting permission from users that would allow its parent company, Facebook, and its subsidiaries to collect user data from their devices.

However, following a backlash from users – with some migrating to competitors like Telegram and Signal – saw WhatsApp eventually back down.

ALSO READ: No! Deleting Whatsapp won’t make you safer online. Here’s what will

If users do not accept the terms by 15 May, WhatsApp says on its website:

  • Users will not be able to access chats. You will still be able to read messages if you have notifications enabled on your phone, but you will not be able to respond.
  • Users will be able to answer incoming voice calls, but it was silent on the ability to make calls.
  • After a few weeks, it said, you will no longer be able to receive calls or notifications of new messages.

So we will have to wait and see what happens as Whatsapp still needs to get the IR’s permission to mine and sell the personal data of South African users.