Google says Texas was incorrect about WhatsApp

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, will deliver the opening speech at the Facebook F8 conference at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California on April 30, 2019, introducing new privacy features for Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Amy Osborne | AFP | Getty Images

On Tuesday, a Texas-led group of attorneys general filed a new antitrust lawsuit against Google. Although the lawsuit primarily focuses on Google’s dominance in ad tech, it also accuses the company of conspiring with rival Facebook in several areas.

The complaint alleges, among other things, that Google has signed a contract with the Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp that gives Google access to WhatsApp messaging data such as texts, photos and videos.

However, according to Google, the claim is imprecise and appears to be based on a misunderstanding about a backup feature that Google offers for WhatsApp and other messaging services to make it easier to transfer old messages to a new phone.

“… shortly after Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2015, Facebook signed an exclusive agreement with Google that gives Google access to millions of fully encrypted WhatsApp messages, photos, videos and audio files from Americans,” the file said. The following details about the agreement in the lawsuit have been heavily edited.

A Google spokesman told CNBC that the characterization of the lawsuit was imprecise and that the deal was a basic feature of backing up messages so that they can be synced from device to device. According to a blog post by Google in 2015, Google introduced the backup feature, which allows users to transfer their texts, photos and videos from one phone to another. Google doesn’t use the backup data to target ads, the spokesman added.

As of 2016, WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption for all messages sent through its service. This means that messages can only be read by the sender and recipient. Hackers, legal entities subpoenaed to access the messages, and even WhatsApp itself cannot read them.

WhatsApp backups are not fully encrypted, the company explains in an FAQ. While backups remain on Google Drive servers, Google has access to the content of this data and can create them in response to a subpoena, for example. WhatsApp backups can be disabled.

On iPhones, WhatsApp can back up messages up to iCloud, Apple’s cloud storage service. These backups are also not encrypted.

The dispute over the point in the lawsuit is an example of how routine functions like message security can be viewed as anti-competitive partnerships between large technology groups that are subject to antitrust scrutiny. This is a small point in the lawsuit that focuses more directly on alleged harm related to Google’s running of auctions for ads.

A WhatsApp representative declined to comment, but Alex Stamos, a former security officer for the company, suggested a similar interpretation.

“Facebook does not have this data. The only explanation could be the optional WhatsApp backup, which is stored in GDrive on Android (iCloud on iOS),” tweeted Stamos.

– Jennifer Elias contributed to this story.

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