Despite WhatsApp's assurances about its robust encryption and privacy protections, contractors for the company are monitoring extensive information on users, often including message content, according to a Tuesday report from ProPublica.
The Facebook-owned chat app, which has 2 billion users around the globe, is also sharing extensive information with law enforcement, the report said.
Contractors working for Accenture, which also does extensive content moderation for Facebook, "sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements" and receive starting salaries of roughly $16.50 an hour to review messages that users flag as potentially including spam, terrorist content, child exploitation material, hate speech, political disinformation and more, according to ProPublica.
Although WhatsApp is encrypted end-to-end, meaning it's supposed to be readable only to sender and recipient, in-chat reports made by users allow the contractors to see the potentially problematic flagged messages and the four previous ones for context, ProPublica reported. Contractors, who must sometimes rely on error-prone language translation tools and typically have less than a minute to spend on reports, can ban accounts or set them up for further monitoring.
The report said contractors also do extensive monitoring on non-encrypted parts of messages, including sender and recipient identity, "their phone number, profile photo, status message, phone battery level, language and time zone," as well as related Facebook accounts, violation history and more — yet the app offers much less transparency into its takedown operations than Facebook of Instagram.
The tension over encryption has been growing in recent months over concerns about harmful content.