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Facebook-WhatsApp deal: User privacy remains chief concern

Published on Feb 20, 2014 3:16 PM
The Facebook and WhatsApp app icons are displayed on an iPhone on Feb 19, 2014 in San Francisco City. WhatsApp has been sold to Facebook for S$23.9 billion, but the jaw-dropping deal has struck fear in the hearts of many users due chiefly to online privacy concerns. -- PHOTO: AFP

Here's the classic rags-to-riches story: Just 20 years ago, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum needed food stamps to survive when he moved to the United States from Ukraine with his mother. But now the 37-year-old has become an overnight billionaire after selling his company for US$19 billion (S$23.9 billion) to Facebook.

While an inspiring story for entrepreneurs, the jaw-dropping deal has also struck fear in the hearts of many users due chiefly to online privacy concerns.

"Imagine how much data-mining they (Facebook) can do on one person," said Singapore-based data analyst Windy Peh, 37.

Some users here were threatening to switch to rival messaging platforms like WeChat or Line as they felt that these platforms were more independent. Wary users, some of whom eschew mainstream social media networks for privacy reasons, would not want to be forced to create a Facebook account to use WhatsApp.

Their concerns are valid. After all, Facebook's primary method of monetisation on the social network - and now photo sharing service Instagram, which it acquired in 2012 for US$1 billion - is advertising. Users are profiled by their names, profile pictures and content posted.

In a post on the WhatsApp blog, Mr Koum assured WhatsApp users that nothing would change for them and that the messaging service "will remain autonomous and operate independently". But a nominal subscription fee of US$0.99 per WhatsApp user would be charged after the first year of use.

While the fee is unlikely to cause users to jump ship, online privacy concerns may. The new WhatsApp has to tread gingerly on the way it uses consumer information, chiefly mobile phone numbers, or risk having keen rivals eat its lunch.

Boasting 450 million monthly active users worldwide today, WhatsApp is the most popular among a slew of messaging apps that allow smartphone users to text anyone around the world for free as long as they have an Internet connection. But messaging rivals like China's WeChat, Japan's Line and Cyprus' Viber are fast catching up, with some sporting in-app games and virtual stickers for sale.

It is not that hard for users to switch allegiance. But if they do, it will be in droves - the bane of a connected world.