Research from ProPublica debunked Facebook's claim that it does not read WhatsApp users' messages.
The investigative journalism organisation reported that over 1,000 Facebook-hired contractors from Singapore, Dublin and Texas use software owned by the social media giant to look through millions of private messages, pictures and videos that WhatsApp users reported as abusive. The content is then filtered by the company's artificial intelligence (AI) systems. The moderators usually sift through reports of inappropriate behaviour such as those involving child porn, potential terrorist activity plotting and fraud.
In response to questions from ProPublica, WhatsApp stated that it takes users' privacy into consideration when making decisions.
"WhatsApp is a lifeline for millions of people around the world. The decisions we make around how we build our app are focused around the privacy of our users, maintaining a high degree of reliability and preventing abuse," the company said.
Two articles released earlier this year revealed the existence of WhatsApp content moderators, some of which shared information that was reflected in a confidential whistleblower complaint filed in 2020 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The complaint spoke of WhatsApp's usage of contractors, AI systems and account information to investigate private messages, images and videos. It also asserted that WhatsApp is not living up to its claims of protecting users' privacy.
"We haven't seen this complaint," a WhatsApp spokesperson said. The SEC declined to comment on the topic and did not publicly disclose any action on the complaint.
Facebook has not admitted the full extent of its WhatsApp user data collection and what it does with that information. WhatsApp shares metadata — unencrypted records containing information about a user's activity — with the U.S. Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies.
WhatsApp user data also played a role in building a prominent case against a former U.S. Treasury Department official who leaked confidential documents to BuzzFeed News detailing potentially illegal transactions made through U.S. banks.
Since WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, Facebook cannot listen to calls or read messages delivered through the instant messaging platform. WhatsApp's encryption scrambles messages before being sent and unscrambles them when they are received by the intended user. However, ProPublica reported that unencrypted versions of messages are sent to WhatsApp's contractors when a user claims that such content exhibits improper behaviour.
In response to ProPublica's investigation, a WhatsApp spokesperson delivered a statement to Business Insider.
"WhatsApp provides a way for people to report spam or abuse, which includes sharing the most recent messages in a chat. This feature is important for preventing the worst abuse on the internet. We strongly disagree with the notion that accepting reports a user chooses to send us is incompatible with end-to-end encryption," the statement read.
Written by Sophia Lopez
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