New UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has made her first intervention since taking over the role last month by warning Facebook that the regulator will be keeping a close eye on the company’s data sharing plan with WhatsApp.
Denham is no stranger to taking on Facebook. During her time as information and privacy commissioner in British Columbia, it is claimed that she led a “groundbreaking” investigation into privacy on Facebook, which resulted in global changes to the social networking site.
Her concerns are shared by data regulators and privacy groups across Europe and the US and follow the news that WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook in 2014, is to start sharing users’ phone numbers with Facebook, helping it to target ads and friend recommendations across the social media network.
Although the company insists WhatsApp’s one billion users will be able to choose not to share their account information with Facebook, the alarm bells are clanging across the world.
Denham said: “The changes WhatsApp and Facebook are making will affect a lot of people. Some might consider it’ll give them a better service, others may be concerned by the lack of control.
“Our role is to pull back the curtain on things like this, ensuring that companies are being transparent with the public about how their personal data is being shared, and protecting consumers by making sure the law is being followed.
“We’ve been informed of the changes. Organisations do not need to get prior approval from the ICO to change their approaches, but they do need to stay within data protection laws. We are looking into this.”
Meanwhile, the Article 29 Working Party, which represents 28 national data protection authorities, has said it is looking into the policy changes “with great vigilance”, adding that “what is at stake is the control of individual users over their own data when they are combined by major Internet players”.
Privacy groups in the US have also reacted angrily, complaining to the Federal Trade Commission that the changes break its previous promise that user data collected would not be used or disclosed for marketing purposes.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy have demanded an FTC investigation and injunction, after branding the changes “unfair and a deceptive trade practice”.
Facebook in $19bn WhatsApp deal
Canadian to take over as Information Commissioner
Graham admits ICO could not find suitable deputies
Search begins for next Information Commissioner
ICO overhauls top team as senior enforcers depart
Facebook and Adblock tool up for online battle royal
Facebook says it will force ads through ad-blockers