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Facebook’s plan to merge WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger sounds a privacy alarm

January 25, 2019

The move to bring the messaging apps Facebook owns together in the background will lead to more data about users being shared between them.

The news: According to a report in the New York Times, Facebook wants to make it easier for people to participate in conversations across its various messaging platforms. Right now, it’s not possible for, say, someone who just has a WhatsApp account to send a message to someone who just has a Facebook Messenger account. A merged infrastructure will make this possible, but it will also have significant implications for privacy.
 
The concerns: One of these is that WhatsApp currently requires only a telephone number to register, whereas Facebook Messenger demands people’s real identities. It’s unclear whether WhatsApp will ultimately require them too. If it does, it could see a host of users desert it. WhatsApp’s founders quit the company last year over their objections to tighter centralized control, as did Instagram’s.
 
Facebook’s plan also raises issues about how data will be shared across the platforms, and with third parties. One bit of good news: the apps will all be required to use end-to-end encryption, as WhatsApp does today. This makes it incredibly hard for outsiders to snoop on conversations.
 
The rationale: Facebook says it wants to make it easier for people to communicate across its “ecosystem” of apps. But the real driver here is a commercial one. By making it easier to swap messages, Facebook can mine even more data to target ads with, and come up with more money-spinning services.
 
There’s another potential benefit: by integrating its messaging apps more tightly, Facebook can argue it would be harder to spin one or more of them off, as some antitrust campaigners think it should be forced to do.

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