This story was originally published by ProPublica.
WhatsApp assures users that no one can see their messages — but the company has an extensive monitoring operation and regularly shares personal information with prosecutors.
When Mark Zuckerburg unveiled a new “privacy-focused vision” for Facebook in March 2019, he cited the company’s global messaging service, WhatsApp, as a model. Acknowledging that “we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” the Facebook CEO wrote
that “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about. We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp.”
Zuckerberg’s vision centered on WhatsApp’s signature feature, which he said the company was planning to apply
to Instagram and Facebook Messenger
: end-to-end encryption, which converts all messages into an unreadable format that is only unlocked when they reach their intended destinations. WhatsApp messages are so secure, he said, that nobody else — not even the company — can read a word. As Zuckerberg had put it earlier, in testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2018, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”
WhatsApp emphasizes this point so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”
Those assurances are not true. WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore, where they examine millions of pieces of users’ content. Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through streams of private messages, images and videos that have been reported by WhatsApp users as improper and then screened by the company’s artificial intelligence systems. These contractors pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute.
Policing users while assuring them that their privacy is sacrosanct makes for an awkward mission at WhatsApp. A 49-slide internal company marketing presentation from December, obtained by ProPublica, emphasizes the “fierce” promotion of WhatsApp’s “privacy narrative.” It compares its “brand character” to “the Immigrant Mother” and displays a photo of Malala Yousafzai, who survived a shooting by the Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a slide titled “Brand tone parameters.” The presentation does not mention the company’s content moderation efforts.
WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, acknowledged that teams of contractors in Austin and elsewhere review WhatsApp messages to identify and remove “the worst” abusers. But Woog told ProPublica that the company does not consider this work to be content moderation, saying: “We actually don’t typically use the term for WhatsApp.” The company declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments. “WhatsApp is a lifeline for millions of people around the world,” the company said. “The decisions we make around how we build our app are focused around the privacy of our users, maintaining a high degree of reliability and preventing abuse.”
WhatsApp’s denial that it moderates content is noticeably different from what Facebook Inc. says about WhatsApp’s corporate siblings, Instagram and Facebook. The company has said that some 15,000 moderators examine content on Facebook and Instagram, neither of which is encrypted. It releases quarterly transparency reports
that detail how many accounts Facebook and Instagram have “actioned” for various categories of abusive content. There is no such report for WhatsApp.
Deploying an army of content reviewers is just one of the ways that Facebook Inc. has compromised the privacy of WhatsApp users. Together, the company’s actions have left WhatsApp — the largest messaging app in the world, with two billion users — far less private than its users likely understand or expect. A ProPublica investigation, drawing on data, documents and dozens of interviews with current and former employees and contractors, reveals how, since purchasing WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has quietly undermined its sweeping security assurances in multiple ways. (Two articles
this summer noted the existence of WhatsApp’s moderators but focused on their working conditions and pay rather than their effect on users’ privacy.
This article is the first to reveal the details and extent of the company’s ability to scrutinize messages and user data — and to examine what the company does with that information.) Continue Reading