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WhatsApp blocks data sharing with Facebook across Europe

Companies bow to European pressure over user privacy concerns

Whatsapp on a phone

WhatsApp has temporarily blocked European user data from being shared with its parent company Facebook, amid an ongoing privacy battle across the continent.

The sharing deal has been suspended to allow regulators to investigate privacy concerns and for Facebook to address the findings, according to the chief European regulatory body monitoring Facebook, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner's Office.

For now, Facebook will only make use of WhatsApp data for the purposes of fighting spam, according to sources speaking to the Financial Times (paywalled).

"We hope to continue our detailed conversations with the UK information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and other data protection officials," Facebook told the FT.

IT Pro contacted Facebook for comment but hasn't received a reply at the time of writing.

The news follows the ICO's request that Facebook and Whatsapp stop sharing data while it investigates whether customer details, such as phone numbers, are being used unlawfully.

The Article 29 Working Party (WP29), a group comprising all EU data protection authorities, said in October that it had "serious concerns" over the change to WhatsApp's data policy. In a letter addressed to Facebook, the WP29 requested a pause in the sharing of personal data 'until the appropriate legal protections could be assured".

WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, made changes to its terms and conditions in August, which allowed user data to be shared with its parent company, even if they do not have a Facebook account. The messaging app argued that it would allow for a better advertising experience and would help fight spam.

However the changes have already led to an outright data-sharing ban in Germany, after regulators there considered the deal an infringement of national data protection law.

08/11/2016: The ICO has stopped Facebook using data from UK WhatsApp users on the social network while it investigates whether customer information, including phone numbers, are being used unlawfully.

In August, WhatsApp changed its privacy policy to say the data about users could be shared with the Facebook group of companies including Messenger and Instagram for services including advertising and product development purposes.

The ICO has now said the companies must explain to customers how their data is being used before they can continue their relationship.

"I don't think users have been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with their information, and I don't think WhatsApp has got valid consent from users to share the information," information commissioner Elizabeth Denham wrote in a blog post. "I also believe users should be given ongoing control over how their information is used, not just a 30-day window."

She said she would also like users of both services to decide whether they want their data to be used now and in the future, with the ability to stop the company using it if they change their mind.

"We think consumers deserve a greater level of information and protection, but so far Facebook and WhatsApp haven't agreed. If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, it may face enforcement action from my office," Denham threatened.

She said companies sharing data is becoming quite a concern of the ICO, especially when company mergers make the law a little more of a grey area. In some instances, companies are acquiring other businesses just for their data, which puts consumers at risk of having their data shared without permission.

"It's a problem that is broader than data protection, and we're speaking with industry, competition regulators and consumer groups to see how we can make people clearer on the law."

German authorities have also voiced concerns about the way Facebook and WhatsApp are sharing data and as a result, the European Commission said it too will investigate the relationship.

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