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Germany orders Facebook to stop collecting WhatsApp user data

Germany's privacy watchdog has ordered the social media company to stop collecting and storing data from WhatsApp users on the grounds that it violates national data protection law. 

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WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a 2014 smartphone in New York.

Patrick Sison/AP/File

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Messaging app WhatsApp announced last month that it would start sharing user data with Facebook, its parent company, to allow the social networking site to better suggest friends and target users with relevant ads.

But some aren't thrilled with the arrangement. Germany's privacy watchdog has now ordered Facebook to stop collecting and storing data on German WhatsApp users, claiming that the agreement is "an infringement of national data protection law."

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In a statement published Tuesday, Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, argued that Germany's 35 million WhatsApp users had not been given the option to say they did not want their data shared.

"It has to be their decision, whether they want to connect their account with Facebook," Mr. Caspar said. "Therefore, Facebook has to ask for their permission in advance. This has not happened."

Caspar also ordered the social media company to delete all data that it has already collected from WhatsApp.

This is not the first time Germany has accused Facebook of infringing on user data rights. In March, German antitrust agency initiated an antitrust probe to determine whether the social media company's data harvesting practices violated data protection laws.

Data privacy has been a priority for many Germans in recent years, heightened by Edward Snowden's 2013 leaks revealing the extent of US surveillance. But that has begun to change in reaction to recent terror attacks, as Isabelle de Pommereau reported for The Christian Science Monitor last month:

'The German hype over surveillance – stop it, control it, limit the extent of it – is still here,' says Ingolf Pernice, director of the Walter Hallenstein-Institute for European Constitutional Law in Berlin. 'But since terrorism has come over to Germany, people have started to think differently.'

Many people still want strong encryption and data privacy, but now he says there's a significant caveat. 'Now there is a but, and this but is linked very closely to security. The more we are confronted to terrorism, the more we will have this debate on surveillance measures.'

Some German politicians are also pressing for new surveillance measures, which they argue are meant to monitor the influx of refugees into Germany and to crack down on crimes committed on the web. 

In the statement published Tuesday, Caspar expressed concern that Facebook could eventually begin to collect data on a larger pool of WhatsApp users, including those who do not possess Facebook accounts.

"According to Facebook, this gigantic amount of data has not yet been collected," he said. "Facebook's answer, that this has merely not been done for the time being, is cause for concern that the gravity of the data protection breach will have much a more severe impact."