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WhatsApp’s global head: ‘We know we have to compete for users’ trust’

The global head of WhatsApp explains to Campaign the new privacy policy changes, what the business is doing to retain its customers’ trust and more.

On 6 January 2021, WhatsApp took its two billion-plus users by surprise by issuing new terms and privacy policy. The policy appeared when users fired up the app, leaving them with two options – accept or leave the app by 8 February. It’s safe to say that the ultimatum left people miffed.

The key updates mentioned on the app’s pop-up were:

  • WhatsApp’s services and how the company processes user data
  • How businesses can use Facebook-hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats
  • How WhatsApp partners Facebook to offer integrations across Facebook Company products.

These points drove users to frenziedly download alternate messaging apps like Signal and Telegram, touted as replacements for the app that was acquired by Facebook in 2014.

Since the privacy policy was announced, WhatsApp has been looking to convey a simple message: personal chats are safe and encrypted. The company posted an infographic on its blog before releasing full-page ads across Indian newspapers to spread the message. As per the company, the policy changes announced on the app were to help users understand how interactions take place with business accounts.

Campaign India caught up with Will Cathcart, head, WhatsApp, to understand the privacy policy and the reactions from its users:

WhatsApp answered queries about privacy through a blog followed by full-page ads. What else will be done to communicate your message to the end-user?

We deeply appreciate the feedback and know how much our users care about privacy and security. Your private chats with friends and family – including groups – are protected by end-to-end encryption. We cannot see them. We show a security label at the top of the chat so you know how your messages are secured. We recognise there has been some confusion over the past week and want to help set the record straight.

We want to be clear the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.

This has become all the more important over the last year with people needing to conduct commerce remotely. We’re building new ways in the near term for people to shop on WhatsApp for businesses to manage and respond to messages. Where launched, this will be available to all, but it will be people’s choice whether or not to choose to do so.

The policy that people seem to be worrying about seems to be one from 2016. Could you clarify this?

We have been a part of Facebook for many years. For an app focused around protecting people’s private messages, it’s most important for people to know that we cannot see your private messages with friends and family and neither can Facebook.

We do not share your contacts with Facebook or the other apps Facebook offers. We offer a global service to communicate with friends, family, co-workers and Facebook help us make sure we can reliably deliver these services. In addition, we work with Facebook to support millions of micro-businesses around India. You can download your account information right from WhatsApp to see for yourself the limited data we collect.

One important thing is – we do not have access to your private messages with friends and families because they are protected by the end-to-end encryption. We limit the data we collect to protect the privacy of our users and to prevent abuse. You can download your account information right from WhatsApp to see for yourself.

The “accept terms or leave WhatsApp” message seems to have been interpreted in different ways. Could this message be put out differently?

We realise the update has caused some confusion and we want to do everything we can to assure our users. You can tell your messages and calls are protected because they are marked “end-to-end encrypted” at the top of each chat. We’re eager to explain to our users our deep convictions on privacy and we do not want to confuse people in any way.

WhatsApp has helped hundreds of millions of people connect around the world for many years and we hope to play a role in people’s lives for the long run.

A version of this article first appeared on Campaign India