WhatsApp users freaked out after Facebook announced plans to buy the popular over-the-top messaging app for north of $16 billion. The world's largest social network doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to privacy, and people were concerned that WhatsApp would start collecting user information and sharing it with Facebook.
WhatsApp cofounder Jan Koum published a reassuring blog post on Monday, but also backed up his words with an app update that added new privacy settings. Now users can show off their profile photo to everyone, no one, or just friends. The same goes for the "last seen" time stamp on messages you send and your status. The update for Android offered up a few other new features, like a Camera shortcut for faster photo-sharing, an option to pay for friends' WhatsApp subscriptions, and the ability to see unread messages on your home screen.
"We don't know your likes"
The company is faced with a perception conundrum: Facebook's resources will let the app grow its impressive international reach, but in the wake of NSA surveillance leaks and Facebook's past privacy gaffes, users won't flock to WhatsApp if they feel the app is overstepping its bounds.
"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," Koum wrote in Monday's post. "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."
In other words: Facebook's efforts to know as much about you as possible won't cross over to WhatsApp.
Koum has a personal reason for keeping WhatsApp's privacy policies in place: He grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when citizens had to watch what they said for fear of political reprisal.
"One of my strongest memories from that time is a phrase I'd frequently hear when my mother was talking on the phone: 'This is not a phone conversation; I'll tell you in person,'" Koum wrote.
WhatsApp's security challenges
WhatsApp security isn't solely a Facebook issue. There are other privacy concerns: Last week, a security blogger said he found a flaw in the Android version of the app that allows hackers to see your WhatsApp chats, which are stored on a device's SD card, if a user unknowingly installs a malicious app. WhatsApp's response: The problem lies with Android, and users have to be careful about downloading apps from untrusted sources. Another recently discovered problem: When WhatsApp users switch phone numbers, they may receive messages intended for the previous phone number's owner. The app disconnects accounts after 45 days of inactivity, which is designed to prevent such issues, but the company also encourages users to delete accounts when they switch numbers.
Other security flaws have in the past been found in WhatsApp's Android version, but the company continues to add protections with regular updates and encourages users to install the most recent version of the app at any given time.