Despite the company’s assurances of end-to-end encrypted communication, a report by ProPublica reveals that Facebook hired a team of 1,000 people to review messages, photos, and videos of WhatsApp users and even sharing them with authorities.
ProPublica describes itself as ‘an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force.
Their March 2019 report said Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, guaranteed the privacy of WhatsApp users.
“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about. We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp,” Zuckerberg said.
“We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp,” he added.
However, Pro Publica’s investigation, which was based on a review of data, documents, and interviews with Facebook employees and contractors, concluded that Zuckerberg’s claims are false.
WhatsApp has a team of a thousand people distributed between Austin, Texas, Singapore, and Dublin that uses Facebook software dedicated to reviewing the content of its users, from messages, videos, and photos that have been reported by other users as inappropriate content, which previously passed through the review of the company’s artificial intelligence systems.
“These contractors pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen—claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting,” the report says.
Pro Publica points out that the conflict lies in Facebook making more than two billion WhatsApp users believe that their privacy is protected when it is not.
The NGO compared Facebook’s practices that undermine the privacy of its users with those of other applications that have gained popularity these past two years.
“WhatsApp shares metadata, unencrypted records that can reveal a lot about a user’s activity, with law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice. Some rivals, such as Signal, intentionally gather much less metadata to avoid incursions on its users’ privacy, and thus share far less with law enforcement,” the report explained.
ProPublica also revealed more than a dozen cases in which WhatsApp data was used to imprison others since 2017.
Will Cathcart, head of Whatsapp, relativized Pro Publica’s report.
“I think we absolutely can have security and safety for people through end-to-end encryption and work with law enforcement to solve crimes,” Cathcart said.
Facebook’s methods for both its platform and Instagram to combat and/or report crime do not appear to be highly effective.
A 2020 report by the Human Trafficking Institute placed Facebook as the top platform by which sex traffickers recruited their victims for the second year in a row.
Sixty-five percent of these victims were minors, and the remaining 35% were adults. Instagram ranks as the second app where the most cases of underage recruitment occurred, accounting for 14% of the cases.
“The Internet is a major platform for traffickers to recruit sex trafficking victims and solicit buyers of commercial sex. In 2020, 59% of online victim recruitment in active sex trafficking cases occurred on Facebook,” the report states.
The Human Trafficking Institute investigation was based on legal proceedings such as victim’s lawsuits in U.S. federal courts. Therefore, the number could be much higher if those cases that do not go to court are considered.