A recent and rather lengthy ProPublica report claims that WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption and privacy promises are “not true.” While WhatsApp is far from a perfectly private service, is it really reading your messages?
Facebook promptly responded to the report. In a communication with 9to5Mac, Facebook told the publication that the ProPublica report is based on a misunderstanding. WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted and cannot be read by anyone other than the receiver. However, if you report a message, WhatsApp’s content moderation team will be able to see it to resolve the issue.
Does WhatsApp Read Your Messages?
End-to-end encryption means messages are scrambled when they leave your device and reassembled when they reach the recipient. So nobody, not even WhatsApp/Facebook knows the contents of a message. This encryption is one of the biggest reasons for the app’s popularity.
The ProPublica report gives the impression that WhatsApp is able to read your messages and it is misleading. WhatsApp can only read a message when it is reported by someone. You can report a contact by clicking on the contact details from the chat > Report Contact, and choose to report and block, or just report. According to the WhatsApp help center, when you report an account,
WhatsApp receives the most recent messages sent to you by the reported user or group, as well as information on your recent interactions with the reported user.WhatsApp Help Center
So when you report someone, WhatsApp gets a copy of your most recent messages with the reported contact so it can take action on the same. The ProPublica report itself mentions how this feature led to the reporting of 4,00,000 cases of possible child-exploitation imagery. WhatsApp’s report and block features are also useful to get antisocial elements off the app.
Takeaway From ProPublica Report
While the report’s analysis of WhatsApp’s features is somewhat flawed, there are other takeaways from it. It points out the dark side of the content moderation business. Here are some excerpts from the ProPublica report:
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Mostly in their 20s and 30s, many (WhatsApp content moderators are) with past experience as store clerks, grocery checkers and baristas, the moderators are hired and employed by Accenture, a huge corporate contractor that works for Facebook and other Fortune 500 behemoths.
The job listings advertise “Content Review” positions and make no mention of Facebook or WhatsApp. Employment documents list the workers’ initial title as “content moderation associate.” Pay starts around $16.50 an hour.
Collectively, the workers scrutinize millions of pieces of WhatsApp content each week. Each reviewer handles upwards of 600 tickets a day, which gives them less than a minute per ticket.ProPublica Report on WhatsApp Privacy
If these conditions are true, then Facebook clearly needs to work on better training its content moderators. The report also states that WhatsApp content moderators mostly have to deal with people who are messing with their friends. However, spending less than a minute with a ticket is bound to take a toll on the moderators in any case.
WhatsApp’s content reporting feature is also imperfect because of the nature of the app. The ProPublica report says there have been instances where “a flawed translation tool set off an alarm when it detected kids for sale and slaughter, which, upon closer scrutiny, turned out to involve young goats intended to be cooked and eaten in halal meals”.
Even if we take this report with a grain of salt, there’s no denying that absolute privacy is a myth. Not only WhatsApp, but privacy-focused apps like ProtonMail are also legally bound to offer limited privacy.