State Attorneys General: Google intentionally concealed that they had access to WhatsApp backups to grow Google Drive


25, 2021

Since 2015, WhatsApp users have been able to backup their messages and media to Google Drive.

This was ostensible a private, encrypted backup, but an investigation by the State Attorneys General who are accusing Google of antitrust violations has revealed that Google was intentionally misleading WhatsApp users regarding their privacy.

While a 2015 Google blog post on the WhatsApp+Google partnership noted “WhatsApp for Android lets you create a private backup of your chat history, voice messages, photos, and videos in Google Drive,” a 2016 internal memo expressed an opposite view.

“WhatsApp’s current messaging around end-to-end encryption is not entirely accurate.”
“WhatsApp currently markets that all communications through its product are end-to-end encrypted, with keys that only the users possess. They have failed to elaborate that data shared from WhatsApp to 3rd party services does not get the same guarantee. This includes backups to Google Drive.”
“It’s important for users to know that when WhatsApp media files are shared with 3rd parties such as Drive, the files are no longer encrypted by WhatsApp.”

Google also hid that the information was actually stored in plain text on the user’s Google Drive by not giving them direct access to the stored data with an internal Google memo noting that Google was “opaquely” backing up users’ WhatsApp communications to Google Drive.

Google of course never revealed that they had full access to WhatsApp user’s data and the Attorneys General notes that Google Drive’s terms of service at the time even allowed them to sell ads against the information contained there.

The states conclude:

Google’s privacy affirmations, omissions, and concealment resulted in increased demand for Google’s back up service. Users rapidly signed up for Google Drive backup of WhatsApp communications. By June of 2016, about 434 million WhatsApp users backed up approximately 345 billion WhatsApp files to Google Drive, netting for Google Drive about a quarter of a billion new Google Drive customers. By May of 2017, Google Drive had gained approximately 750 million new WhatsApp back up accounts.

In short, Google had no problem violating the privacy of almost a billion users if it helped them to grow their business.

The allegations can be read in full in the State’s court filing here.

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