Why the GAA has a big problem with WhatsApp

Behind apparently free and convenient messaging lies real data threats to privacy

The news that the GAA has advised its clubs and members to stop using WhatsApp group chats to might seem like a minor internal matter. But in a wider context it neatly encapsulates several important issues about data protection, privacy and corporate power.

The starting point is that the guidance isn’t new. The issue may have surfaced in the last fortnight but this has been the official GAA recommendation since 2018, and the fact that clubs are still using WhatsApp shows how much has yet to be done on compliance with the law. For all the initial flurry of publicity around the EU’s introduction in 2018 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), actual implementation is very much a work in progress.

Saying you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say

This failure reflects a lack of understanding of what data protection is about. Many of the social media responses to the GAA story were dismissive: “GDPR gone mad”, “bureaucratic nonsense”, and “I don’t care who has my number”.

But the issues are obvious with a little thought. Putting club communications through WhatsApp forces members to expose their phone numbers and profile photographs to everyone else in the group, which could include a hundred strangers. Some might not care, but others – such as GPs who don’t want patients to have their private numbers, women who might end up receiving unsolicited “d**k pics”, or just those who want to keep their private details private – very much will.


Repeat offender

As the whistleblower Edward Snowden put it, saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

Less obvious, but equally concerning, is the fact that WhatsApp groups require people to share a great deal of personal information with Facebook – a repeat offender against privacy, which just this week has been forced to pay $550 million for illegally using facial recognition to identify individuals in photographs without their consent. Facebook already has a dangerously dominant position in online communications (it also owns Messenger and Instagram as well as WhatsApp) and clubs should not be propping this up by forcing people to use its services or be frozen out of club activities.

Facebook is not providing WhatsApp for philanthropic purposes and information about you is immensely valuable

Sports clubs and other small organisations using WhatsApp point out that they have limited resources and that they can’t afford the cost and complexity of more privacy-protective services. For an organisation the size of the GAA this isn’t a defence, and to its credit the GAA has been progressively moving to messaging through its own app. But for other groups it is true that there is nothing else on the market as cheap and easy to use as WhatsApp.

Of course, this prompts the question – why are there so few alternatives? The reality is that WhatsApp has largely crowded them out of the market. It is difficult to compete with free.

“Free”, however, isn’t really an appropriate word to use for WhatsApp. The cliche that “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is certainly true in this case.

Not philanthropic

Facebook is not providing WhatsApp for philanthropic purposes, and information about who you communicate with, how and when is immensely valuable. When it bought WhatsApp, Facebook attempted to combine that information with individuals’ Facebook activity – to build up a complete picture of your activity, public and private – despite stating to the European Commission that it would not do so. Facebook was eventually stopped by data protection authorities, and in 2017 it was fined €110 million by the European Commission for its deceptive statements during the merger. Nevertheless, it has stated that it still aims to use WhatsApp information for Facebook advertising, and presumably will also use your WhatsApp activity for ad targeting as it rolls out advertising on WhatsApp in 2020.

Given the commercial value of this personal information, clubs and other groups who communicate through WhatsApp are still paying for a service – it’s just that they’re shifting the cost to their members, who pay with their privacy.

Ultimately, this story isn’t really about individual clubs. It’s about more than the privacy rights of the individuals on the Junior B group chat. The real issue is how one US company came to dominate the internet so that even organisations as large as the GAA have difficulty communicating with their members without using their services, and what we as a society should do about this concentration of power.

Dr TJ McIntyre is an associate professor in the UCD Sutherland School of Law, consultant solicitor with FP Logue Solicitors and chair of Digital Rights Ireland