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WhatsApp-n'in with GDPR? A change to research methods and techniques

WhatsApp is the most used app in the world. It's understood by its users, well-loved and the number one platform for digital interaction. There are 1.2 billion people using it globally, and some 680M users on a monthly basis*. So, why is GDPR legislation going to impact its use in online research?

WhatsApp is often used as a tool by the modern online researcher as one of their research methods and techniques. It’s great for activities like pre-tasks and diaries because of its ease of use and convenience. Given that 1.2 billion consumers already have it installed as a native-app on their mobile phones, there is no need for researchers to onboard them or teach them what to do. Media sharing is quick and easy, and you can create discussion groups on the fly. What's not to like!  It's an incredibly versatile tool for both communication and exploration, making it ideal for the modern researcher.

However...its use as a research tool are numbered, thanks to new GDPR legislation that’s being introduced next month (25 May)

By now, anyone who is in the business of handling or analysing data is likely aware of GDPR and the implications it has for business, the rights of EU citizens, and the hefty fines that can be implemented should companies fail to get their ducks in a row. Now, whilst many agencies will be ensuring that they are refining and securing their data processes, and technologists will certainly be doing the same, there are some tools which will fall into a problematic grey area. These tools tend to be those used by researchers, that have not been designed with that specific use case in mind. WhatsApp is just one of many examples here.

The crux of the issue is this, new GDPR rules state that consumers have the right to know how data controllers are processing their data, where it is, and what it is being used for. This is fine in the case where agencies or technologists are the ones solely in receipt of the data. However, in cases where WhatsApp is used for online group sessions, there is an issue. Currently, within these groups, every individual can see the private phone number of everyone else, and the data that has been shared.

No one member has any extra privileges over the others, in the way they would have with a purpose built research platform such as our own Tandem or Together platforms e.g. where specified roles and permissions such as moderator or community manager, observers and participant are applied.

User roles and permissions protect the rights and data of specific users. It's why ‘observer’ roles are often key in studies where researchers would like their client to have ‘eyes on’, but also prevent them from having direct control/access to their participants. This means that within a WhatsApp group, anyone within the group can download shared information and do with it whatever they want with it. This would constitute a GDPR breach because, unless the agency is able to track exactly how and where that data is being used and okay this with its creator, that information is no longer under their control.

This same scenario would also contravene the new GDPR rules that enforce the 'right to be forgotten’. Whilst the agency may delete the data (and ties to the participant) others may now have the private and personal information of the group and yet are not obligated to follow the same rules. Thus again, the agency would be at fault.

Ultimately, it is the GDPR focus on privacy design that might put the nail in WhatsApp research coffin. Purpose built process and technologies for data capture and process now have to be constructed with these laws, and the other GDPR processes, in mind. WhastApp, when used between friends or one on one, already adheres to these rules due to its end to end encryption protocols. However, when it is appropriated for digital focus groups (not something that was perhaps originally considered during its invention) then it is likely going to create a breach in privacy.

With all this in mind, if you’re still keen to engage with people online in a secure environment that won’t land you with a hefty fine, why not use Tandem? (you didn’t think we were going to ignore the opportunity to use this piece as a way to highlight our own technology did you?!). Tandem’s private one-to-one nature and chat feature allows you to draw upon the same successful social features that people use on WhatsApp, but in a way the guarantees the integrity of their data and your business. Participant engagement rates are typically over 90%. Fully emoji capable, easily accessible and using the latest a seamless prompt-link system, it allows for fluid interaction without bombarding you with relentless notifications.

Sounds too good to be true? Get in touch to arrange a trial and have a go yourself...

Let's Talk

*click here for more WhatsApp stats...


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