Facebook didn’t pony up $22 billion for WhatsApp just for its messaging app. Facebook was exchanging one type of currency for another that it’s been able to cash into billions: data. And now it’s getting it.
That means Facebook will be able to match the phone numbers people submit when signing up for WhatsApp to the ones they may have attached to their Facebook profiles to connect those accounts. Facebook will be able to use that connection and the data it gets from WhatsApp like people’s contact lists to figure out which ads or other content to show people on Facebook.
It’s a clever loophole to honor the letter, but not necessarily the spirit, of the pledge WhatsApp made to its users shortly after the Facebook deal was announced in February 2014.
“Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible: You don’t have to give us your name and we don’t ask for your email address. We don’t know your birthday. We don’t know your home address. We don’t know where you work. We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that,” WhatsApp wrote in a company blog post in March 2014.
This remains true. But WhatsApp doesn’t need any of that data. For 1.7 billion people around the world — a good number of which are likely among WhatsApp’s 1 billion users — Facebook already has it.
Step 1) Find a way to match someone across their Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Step 2) Use that match to accumulate more data about that person.
Step 3) Apply that data in targeting that person with ads and content recommendations on both Facebook and Instagram.
In a section titled “Commercial Messaging,” WhatsApp tells businesses will be able to send messages with “order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing.”
This sounds a lot like how Facebook has started bringing ads into its home-grown messaging service, Messenger. After opening up Messenger to business messages like order receipts and shipping notifications in 2015, this year Facebook started testing a way for businesses to pay to send messages to people who are already connected to them on Messenger.