Paying for text messages is something no one likes to do, right? And now that almost all of us own smartphones, why not just send messages over the internet? That’s what WhatsApp does, but in a very special way. Instant Messaging platforms like MSN, AIM, and Yahoo! Messenger have been around forever, but they’re tied to a username and password. WhatsApp is tied to your phone number. When you install the app it asks you for your phone number, they then send you a code you need to enter to authenticate yourself, and then finally they suck up all the contacts in your address book to see which of your friends are also on the service.
That last bit, the part where WhatsApp sucks up your phone book, has got the authorities in Canada and The Netherlands concerned. According to Reuters, if someone gives you their phone number, and you put your phone number in your address book, then you’re not allowed to give that number to another party unless you have permission from the owner of said phone number. Here’s a quote from the article:
“This lack of choice contravenes (Canadian and Dutch) privacy law. Both users and non-users should have control over their personal data and users must be able to freely decide what contact details they wish to share with WhatsApp,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, chairman of the Dutch Data Protection Authority.”
Realistically speaking, what’s the worse that could happen? WhatsApp could be forced to pull out of Canada and The Netherlands, but then that would mean the government would have to police all of WhatsApps’ competitors. There are more than you think.
What confuses us is that email addresses are freely exchanged between corporations and no one bats an eyelid. Phone numbers on the other hand, they hold this mythical status. Maybe it’s time for that to change?