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Why We Want Tech Copycats to Fail

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Facebook and its WhatsApp chat app got unwanted attention when they rolled out a confusing update to a privacy policy. After thinking it over for a few weeks, the companies are still getting it wrong.

Quick catch up: There was a mini global freakout last month when WhatsApp started notifying people about what appeared to be new steps that forced WhatsApp users to hand over their personal data to Facebook, which owns the app.

WhatsApp didn’t actually change very much, but its communications were awful. And it was a moment for people to consider something they perhaps had not before: Facebook already collects a lot of information from what people do on WhatsApp.

In response to the drama, Facebook and WhatsApp said they would pause and think over people’s criticisms. On Thursday, WhatsApp responded. It was better but still not quite right.

WhatsApp keeps saying what it doesn’t do with people’s personal information — that messages are scrambled so that no one can peer at the contents, and that WhatsApp doesn’t share your phone number with businesses. But WhatsApp still isn’t saying what it does do with people’s personal information.

The plain talk is that Facebook gathers information when people use non-Facebook apps on their phones. The company harvests people’s physical location even when they’re not using Facebook. It keeps track of people you unfriended, all of the websites you visit and your contacts. Many of us understand this, even if we don’t want to acknowledge all of the gory details.

Most of Facebook’s data harvesting applies to WhatsApp, too, although Facebook says that WhatsApp contacts aren’t shared with Facebook.

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