Brazilian authorities urged to act on WhatsApp privacy update

Consumer protection body Idec notified several organizations with unanswered questions over privacy rights and data protection.

Brazilian authorities were urged to act on WhatsApp's forthcoming privacy update, amid concerns over privacy rights and data protection.

Consumer rights non-profit organization Idec has notified various governmental organizations, including the National Data Protection Authority, the National Consumer Secretariat and the Federal Prosecution Service with a request for joint action to prevent irregularities stemming from the changes, set to take effect from May 15.

WhatsApp's new privacy policy update will allow Facebook to aggregate all of its users' data across all of its services. Introduced quietly to users through a prompt to accept the new terms late last year, the update caused uproar over the data the social networking giant could access, and, as a result, the company has delayed enforcing the new terms from the originally planned date of February 8 to mid-May.

"It is essential that the Brazilian authorities press [Facebook] for clear answers and that the administrative procedures implemented respect the data protection rights of Brazilians", said the lawyer leading the digital rights program at Idec, Michel Roberto de Souza.

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Facebook-owned apps are the smartphone tools Brazilians use more often and for longer periods of time, according to a survey carried out by Brazilian technology news and research website Mobile Time and polling firm Opinion Box. WhatsApp is the app 54% of Brazilians open the most, followed by Instagram (14%) and Facebook (11%), the study noted. When it comes to total time spent on apps daily, WhatsApp was cited by 29% of respondents, followed by Instagram (24%) and Facebook (20%).

According to the Idec, there is a lack of clear information to users on the upcoming changes and their consequences. The mandatory consumer data sharing practice is described by the NGO as abusive, since users cannot opt out of the new terms and continue to use even the basic features of the app.

Idec argues that consumer's right to choose is not respected when users are forced to accept WhatsApp's new terms of use. "Sharing user data across Facebook's companies to improve targeted advertising is in no way necessary for the execution or the existence of the messaging app, nor is it in the best interests of the user", said lawyer and digital rights researcher at Idec, Juliana Oms. "It would therefore depend on a free and informed consent of the consumer, one that does not otherwise prevent the user from using the app."

The NGO's notification also included 40 unanswered questions to be posed by authorities to the Facebook-owned messaging tool. "There are strong indications that the company disrespects the consumer protection code and the civil framework of the Internet and did not adequately adapt to the new data protection legislation", Idec argues in the notification.

Moreover, Idec points out that Facebook has committed to ensuring a greater degree of user privacy in several European countries in recent years, and that there is a difference between the terms being updated in 2021 in Brazil and the upcoming rules in Europe. According to Idec's Souza, this is another indication of irregularity.

"The Brazilian General Data Protection Law was based on the European law because it is a robust [framework] that provides citizens with the conditions to have their data safely protected", the specialist noted. "It is unreasonable for countries with similar laws on the subject to receive such disparate treatment, especially when it comes to the violation of fundamental rights [around]
the protection of personal data."

Contacted by ZDNet, WhatsApp did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.