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Google + WhatsApp = The Next Privacy Trap

whatsapp

By Simon Davies

When the Washington Post publishes detailed coverage of a tech industry rumour, you can bet there’s some substance in the rumour. At least such has been the paper’s history so far.

The $.99 subscription fee keeps the service ad-free – a much-loved benefit to users that pundits believe is not likely to last long if Google is successful in acquiring the company.

In this case the rumour is that Google is negotiating to buy WhatsApp, a social media application with a user base spread throughout more than 100 countries. The price doing the rounds is a billion dollars – perhaps a modest sum for a fast growing app that has the potential to challenge the business models of social networks such as Facebook and Google+. Given what Google may be planning to do with the company’s customer base a billion is peanuts. Little wonder WhatsApp is rumoured to be holding out for a higher bid.

WhatsApp is feared by more traditional social networks like Google+ and Facebook because it enables real-time messaging across smart phone networks.  The $.99 subscription fee keeps the service ad-free – a much-loved benefit to users that pundits believe is not likely to last long if Google is successful in acquiring the company. The service is highly intuitive and sidesteps some of the transaction baggage of the big networks. It allows users to communicate with one another in brief, text message-like spurts. It’s efficient.

Perhaps the most attractive asset to Google – and the aspect that should be of most concern to anyone who cares about privacy – is WhatsApp’s user population and how Google will likely attempt to monetize that asset.  If Google is successful in acquiring the company it will be able to lock in many millions of new users by requiring those customers to set up a Google Account.

If Google is successful in acquiring the company it will be able to lock in many millions of new users by requiring those customers to set up a Google Account.

it’s also probably inevitable that existing Google account holders would be required to sign in with their credentials. That means under the terms of the new Google privacy policy that all activities on WhatsApp can be linked to activities across the Google spectrum.

This means that WhatsApp would provide Google with yet another platform to accumulate user data and combine it across platforms.  Last year, – despite protests from regulators – Google defiantly brought more than 60 products and services under a single privacy policy so it could collect and combine troves of consumer data onto a single platform.  Google was widely criticized for this action, and as a result is now is under active investigation by multiple national regulators.

Just last week, CNIL President Isabelle Falque Pierrotin announced that Google was still in breach of European law for failing to protect the data it collects. The very real prospect of the company amalgamating phone data with search and other data is exactly what regulators feared.

Adding WhatsApp to this data gathering arsenal would enable Google to conquer one of the last-remaining user data streams that it does not already own, control or dominate.

Google already controls the market for search.  By combining the troves of user data it collects from search with personal data generated by Gmail, the world’s largest e-mail service, YouTube, the world’s largest video sharing service, Google+, one of the world’s fastest-growing social networking sites, and similar market-leading products and services, Google already possesses the largest and deepest trove of user data than any other entity in the world.  Adding WhatsApp to this data gathering arsenal would enable Google to conquer one of the last-remaining user data streams that it does not already own, control or dominate.

This concern is not academic.  By thrusting its hand into every data stream running to or from user devices, Google will be in an unprecedented position to gather more data about more individuals than any other entity on the planet.  The transactional and associative data alone would be vast.

This prospect – combined with Google’s existing track record on privacy and compliance – is a cause for grave concern.  If Google indeed is planning to acquire WhatsApp, then regulators must examine the effect of that acquisition – not only on competition – but also on consumer privacy.  If they do, it will be quite clear that – at a minimum – Google should be prohibited from combining user data from WhatsApp with data collected through other products and services.

Regulators were not able to stop Google from combining user data in the past.  They can and must start here.