As I mentioned in an
earlier post, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
(OPC) and the Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) announced the
results of their coordinated investigation into a mobile messaging
platform that allows users to send and receive instant messages
over the Internet.
In addition to the issue of the use of address book information,
OPC raised concerns regarding status update broadcasts.
The app requires a user to enter a status update. The OPC
reported that standard messages include "available",
"busy", "at school", "at work",
"sleeping", "in a meeting" and "urgent
calls only". Users may also personalize status updates using
139 characters. The status field must be populated. However, the
user could use emoticons or meaningless combinations of
The status update is visible to every other user with the
user's phone number in his or her address book. There is no
method to limit broadcasts. As the OPC put it:
. In contrast to some social networking platforms which
allow an individual to limit or control the broadcast of status
submissions to only certain people, status messages shared using
the WhatsApp messenger service are, by design, broadcast to all
WhatsApp users who have the broadcasting user's telephone
number in their contact list. As such, a sender may not have
knowledge of the identity of all those application users who may be
receiving or monitoring the sender's status messages. Any
individual, whether for friendly or nefarious purposes, may track a
user's status, so long as that individual has the message
sender's telephone number.
It should be noted, however, that the app did permit users to
block other users. A status would not be seen by a blocked
The OPC concluded that the status information was personal
information because the information might be used alone or in
combination with other data to render an individual
Notwithstanding that the status information was being broadcast
within the app to other users of the app, as disclosed in the
obtain more meaningful consent to the collection, use and
disclosure of that status information.
The OPC distinguished the app from micro-blogging platforms
because unlike a micro-blogging platform, the the app was primarily
marked as a SMS replacement. As the OPC put it, the app conveyed
"the general impression that such messages are being shared
only with those people the user knows".
Given the lack of granular user controls to limit the sharing of
the status update, the OPC recommended real-time notification.
However, the OPC conceded that users should be given control over
This decision provides an illustration of the OPC's concern
that meaningful consent in the mobile environment may require
notice and consent contemporaneous with collection and disclosure
as well as in stand-alone privacy policies.
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