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Security & privacy

After years of saying otherwise, now we know Facebook can read your WhatsApp messages

Facebook doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to privacy. Even founder Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that in 2019, saying it doesn’t have “a strong reputation for building privacy-protective services.”

Zuckerberg vowed to make security changes and give users more control over their data. It is a major selling point for their messaging service WhatsApp, which uses end-to-end encryption for communication.

That means, in theory, that nobody would be able to read messages sent back and forth between users. End-to-end encryption has recently also been rolled out for Facebook Messenger and is used in Instagram too. But those encrypted messages might not be as private as you’d expect.

Here’s the backstory

Facebook claims it doesn’t read your WhatsApp messages, which is partly true. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is that other contracted companies can. This was recently revealed through an investigation by nonprofit organization ProPublica.

The report details how WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers who go through supposedly private messages between users. They are based in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore, and handle millions of messages.

“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,” the investigation revealed.

The focus of these workers is to verify reported messages in less than a minute each. WhatsApp users could have flagged messages for containing “everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting.”

How to get your privacy back

It would be nearly impossible to get away from Facebook’s reach, especially if you use WhatsApp regularly. But to start a Facebook cleanse, you can disconnect off-Facebook activity from your account.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Open your Facebook profile on a desktop computer
  • In the top right-hand corner, click on the Account button (It looks like an arrow pointing down)
  • Click on Settings & Privacy and then click Settings
  • On the left, select Your Facebook Information
  • Click on Off-Facebook Activity
  • Under the What You Can Do section, click Clear History
  • Next, click More Options
  • Then click Manage Future Activity and select Manage Future Activity again in the window that appears
  • On the next page, slide the toggle next to Future Off-Facebook Activity to the left to disable it

We recommend the three options below for a more secure messaging service to replace WhatsApp.

Signal – Private Messenger

End-to-end encryption app Signal has been around for some time but rose to prominence after WhatsApp’s updated terms and conditions fiasco. The messaging app attracted millions of signups over a few days.

Signal is a free app for both Apple and Android devices. Get the Signal app here for iOS. Or download it here for Android.

Telegram Messenger

Telegram’s mobile and desktop messaging app focuses on security and speed. It has been available since 2013 and currently has over 500 million monthly active users.

It is available for free for both Apple and Android devices. Get Telegram here for iOS. Or download it here for Android.

Threema. The Secure Messenger

Despite being unknown to many, the company started in 2012. Featuring much of the same technology as other encrypted messaging apps, Threema is different as it’s a paid-for service, and users don’t need a phone number so that you can stay anonymous.

You can purchase Threema for Apple or Android devices for $3.99. Download the app here for iOS. Or get Threema here for Android.

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