Why leadership must be on the same page when it comes to data privacy and security

Former WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum quit Facebook over privacy concerns, highlighting the fact that a company's leaders and its board must have the same approach to data.

Facebook and the cloud: Here's what comes next
Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Jan Koum is the last WhatsApp founder left at Facebook, but is leaving over apparent concerns with Facebook's stance toward data privacy.
  • Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014.

Jan Koum, the co-founder and CEO of WhatsApp, is leaving Facebook following "clashes" with the company over the strategic direction the company is taking with messaging and concerns about Facebook aiming to weaken encryption in WhatsApp, according to a report in the Washington Post. Facebook bought the company for an eye-watering $19 billion in 2014, though has faced substantial resistance from Koum and co-founder Brian Acton over attempts to monetize the service with advertisements.

Koum announced his departure, while not addressing the underlying reasons, in a personal Facebook post:

It's been almost a decade since Brian and I started WhatsApp, and it's been an amazing journey with some of the best people. But it is time for me to move on. I've been blessed to work with such an incredibly small team and see how a crazy amount of focus can produce an app used by so many people all over the world.

I'm leaving at a time when people are using WhatsApp in more ways than I could have imagined. The team is stronger than ever and it'll continue to do amazing things. I'm taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee. And I'll still be cheering WhatsApp on - just from the outside. Thanks to everyone who has made this journey possible.

In a response, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg thanked Koum for teaching him about "encryption and its ability to take power from centralized systems and put it back in people's hands."

As the report in the Washington Post noted, Koum's position is unique among the founders of companies purchased by Facebook, as he is the only member to have served on Facebook's board. The sources cited in the Post report indicate that Koum's decision to leave was planned before the Cambridge Analytica scandal that has plagued Facebook in recent months.

SEE: Encryption policy (Tech Pro Research)

While the changes to WhatsApp's direction under Facebook's ownership are less drastic than the complete reengineering of Skype to become a centralized service following Microsoft's acquisition of the company, there have been some subtle changes in how information is shared. In August 2016, WhatsApp's privacy policy was changed to allow sharing registered phone numbers with Facebook, which CNET's Katie Collins noted at the time was a "a reversal of the original WhatsApp team's vow that the deal wouldn't affect their stance on digital privacy."

Similarly, the WhatsApp team had struggled to balance user privacy with Facebook's plan to open the platform up to more advertising, and a planned feature set that allows businesses to communicate with the 1.5 billion frequent WhatsApp users, which reportedly requires weakening WhatsApp's already somewhat flawed end-to-end encryption scheme.

Brian Acton left Facebook last September, and has subsequently become a critic of the company. In March, Acton tweeted support for the #DeleteFacebook movement, stating "It is time." In February, Acton co-founded the Signal Foundation alongside Signal developer Moxie Marlinspike in order "to support, accelerate, and broaden Signal's mission of making private communication accessible and ubiquitous." Acton donated $50 million to the Signal Foundation at the same time.

The departures of both Koum and Acton illustrate how critical it is that leadership, regardless of its place in the company, be kept in the loop regarding any changes to data privacy and security. Especially in the case of Acton, who became a public critic of Facebook, the firm could have worked with leadership earlier to get on the same page regarding privacy, possibly avoiding such a scenario.

Also see

Image: Sarah Tew/CNET