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WhatsApp: Govt warns Nigerian users of alleged privacy breaches

WhatsApp: Govt warns Nigerian users of alleged privacy breaches
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Nigeria’s IT regulator has alerted WhatsApp users in the country to alleged data privacy breaches on the messaging platform owned by Facebook.

The Whatsapp Terms of Service and Privacy Policy which came into effect on May 15 raises serious data privacy concerns to millions of Nigerian users of the messaging service, according to the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). 

Mrs. Hadiza Umar, NITDA’s Head of Corporate Affairs and External Relation says in the advisory that the Federal IT regulator wants to “ensure Nigerians do not become victims of digital colonialism”, hence it is advising WhatsApp users to explore alternative platform while discussions are underway with owners, Facebook.

whatsapp-govt-warns-nigerian-users-privacy-breach
Technology Times file photo shows mobile phone buyers at phone shop at Ikeja Computer Village in Lagos. NITDA says Nigeria is home to millions of WhatsApp users.

“Nigerians may wish to note that there are other available platforms with similar functionalities which they may wish to explore. Choice of platform should consider data sharing practices, privacy, ease of use among others”, NITDA says.

According to the agency’s spokesperson, WhatsApp users are advised to “limit the sharing of sensitive personal information on private messaging and social media platforms as the initial promise of privacy and security is now being overridden on the basis of business exigency.”

According to her, “millions of Nigerians use Whatsapp platform for business, social, educational, and other purposes. The platform is the social media platform of choice for many Nigerians. To understand the issues and give an opportunity to explain its views, NITDA in collaboration with the African Network of Data Protection Authorities engaged Facebook Incorporated, the owners of Whatsapp platform, specifically, its global Policy officials on 9 April, 2021.”

NITDA says that following the engagement, it has become necessary to advise WhatsApp users in Nigeria of how the business decisions of the messaging platform’s owner, Facebook, now affect their privacy rights.

NITDA’s advisory outlined the key issues confronting Nigerian WhatsApp users as follows: 

What Has Changed? 

Facebook acquired Whatsapp in February 2014. Facebook Currently has over 2.5 billion users globally, while Whatsapp has over 2 billion users. Whatsapp shared a reviewed Privacy Policy on 4 January 2021, informing its users outside the European Union that it would now share their information with Facebook and its sister companies. 

Datasets collected by Whatsapp 

Whatsapp collects the following information on users: 

  • account information 
  • messages (including undelivered messages, media forwarding) 
  • connections; 
  • status information; 
  • transactions and payments data; 
  • usage and log information; 
  • device and connection information; 
  • location information; 
  • cookies etc. 

Other information collected from users include their battery level; signal strength; app version; browser information; mobile network; connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP), language and time zone; Internet Protocol address; device operations information; social media identifiers, NITDA says.

The Nigerian IT regulator says that the new policy which best renders the Whatsapp platform’s information-sharing practices with Facebook and its companies is clearly spelt out thus: “As part of the Facebook Companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with the other Facebook Companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support and market our Services and their offerings, including the Facebook Company Products…”

The regulator says Nigerian Whatsapp users need to know that the messaging service shares their information with the Facebook company and these include their account registration information; details on how users interact with others; mobile device information; Internet Protocol address and location data, among others.

According to the agency’s spokesperson, “the Facebook Team confirmed that private messages shared on WhatsApp consumer version are encrypted and not seen by the company. But the metadata (data about the usage of the service) which is also personal information is shared with other members of the Facebook Group.”

According to Mrs Umar, “Whatsapp users are at liberty to decide on giving consent to the processing of their data based on the new privacy policy. The Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) recognizes consent (a clear, unambiguous expression of privacy terms communicated by the controller and accepted by the Data Subject) as one of the lawful basis for data processing. Acceptance of the new privacy policy and terms of use implies that user data would now be shared with Facebook and other third parties. Users will now be subject to the terms and policies of Facebook and other receiving entities with or without being direct subscribers to such services.”

She explains that the NDPR “recognises consent (a clear, unambiguous expression of privacy terms communicated by the controller and accepted by the Data Subject) as one of the lawful basis for data processing. Acceptance of the new privacy policy and terms of use implies that user data would now be shared with Facebook and other third parties. Users will now be subject to the terms and policies of Facebook and other receiving entities with or without being direct subscribers to such services.”

The Nigerian government says that while its engagement with Facebook is ongoing as NITDA says it has told the tech company areas of improvements needed to comply with local data privacy rules while the regulator has “also raised concerns as to the marked difference between the privacy standard applicable in Europe, under the GDPR and the rest of the world.”

The agency’s spokesperson says that following the WhatsApp incident, “and other emerging issues around international technology companies, NITDA, with stakeholders, is exploring all options to ensure Nigerians do not become victims of digital colonialism. 

“Our national security, dignity and individual privacy are cherished considerations we must not lose. Because of this, we shall work with the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy to organize a hackathon for Nigerians to pitch solutions that can provide services that will provide functional alternatives to existing global social platforms.”

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