Facebook have long promised that WhatsApp is completely secure – but an explosive new investigation has confirmed that the tech giant regularly accesses and reads users’ private messages.
Facebook quickly backtracked, delaying the changes by several months and insisting to users that WhatsApp could not access ‘personal’ messages.
But according to ProPublica, the Facebook-owned messaging platform has more than 1,000 workers on contract whose job it is to review millions of user messages, photos, and videos every day.
This is despite sweeping claims from the app every time a user is about to send a message that “no one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them” – and a 2018 promise to the US government from Mark Zuckerberg himself that “we don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp”.
Anonymous interviews with around 29 contractors indicate that workers, aided by artificial intelligence, are able to sift through messages that have been reported by WhatsApp users.
Just like on Facebook, these reviewers are hired to screen messages for illegal or spam content, ranging from potential text scams to child pornography and terrorist plots.
One reviewer even recalled having to watch a video of a machete-wielding man holding up what looked like a severed head, and having to decide if it was real or not.
If content is deemed unacceptable, moderators can place users on a ‘watchlist’ or even ban accounts. On top of that, much of user’s ‘metadata’ – such as user’s names, phone numbers, IP address, list of devices, related Facebook or Instagram accounts – is being shared with law enforcement.
The U.S. Justice Department reportedly asked for court orders for data from the platform at least a dozen times since 2017, even using it to bust a former government employee who leaked documents exposing ‘how dirty money flows through U.S. banks’.
However, it is not only criminals whose communications are being read. Once a message, video, or photo is reported, it is sent to contractors along with four previous exchanges – meaning potentially anybody’s private communications can be accessed by Facebook contractors.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, the messaging service was completely encrypted and private – and Mark Zuckerberg promised to keep it “exactly the same”, saying that “WhatsApp is going to operate completely autonomously.”
But with the company on a major push to make money from the platform, perhaps things aren’t quite as transparent as they seem.
A WhatsApp spokesperson said: “We build WhatsApp in a manner that limits the data we collect while providing us tools to prevent spam, investigate threats, and ban those engaged in abuse, including based on user reports we receive.
“This work takes extraordinary effort from security experts and a valued trust and safety team that works tirelessly to help provide the world with private communication.
“Based on the feedback we’ve received from users, we’re confident people understand when they make reports to WhatsApp we receive the content they send us.”