TECH
02/24/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2014

Zuckerberg Promises Facebook Won't Read Your WhatsApp Chats

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Worried that Facebook is going to ruin WhatsApp? Mark Zuckerberg promises it won't.

Facebook's approach to our personal information couldn't be more at odds with that of WhatsApp, the messaging company Zuckerberg acquired last week for $19 billion: While Facebook wants to collect as much of our data as it can, WhatsApp wants to know the bare minimum about us.

And apparently WhatsApp is going to stay that way: During an onstage interview Monday at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Zuckerberg promised that Facebook wouldn't change WhatsApp's data policy to begin retaining and, presumably, advertising against the content of individuals' messages.

"The vision is to keep the service exactly the same," Zuckerberg said. He noted that WhatsApp neither uses nor stores any of the billions of photos and chats exchanged on the app daily. The content is deleted "almost instantly," which is "what people want," said Zuckerberg.

"We would be pretty silly to get in the way of that," he added.

Influenced by his own upbringing in Ukraine, where the government would monitor personal communications, Jan Koum, WhatsApp's co-founder and CEO, made privacy a core tenet of his application.

“I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on," Koum recently told Wired magazine. "People need to differentiate us from companies like Yahoo! and Facebook that collect your data and have it sitting on their servers. We want to know as little about our users as possible. We don't know your name, your gender… We designed our system to be as anonymous as possible."

Though Zuckerberg said the acquisition gives WhatsApp time to focus on growing its user base rather than making money off its members, the company will eventually be expected to extract dollars out of the hundreds of millions of people who use the service. Koum and his co-founder have been staunch opponents of advertising -- the core of Facebook's own money-making strategy -- and Zuckerberg was tight-lipped on how WhatsApp might find ways to cash in on its popularity.

The app already charges a one-dollar annual fee to use the service after the first year. But Facebook will no doubt expect much more to justify the deal, one of the most expensive acquisitions in more than a decade, costing Facebook about $42 per WhatsApp user. (A bullish Zuckerberg predicted that WhatsApp, as an independent company, would be "worth more than $19 billion").

One path for WhatsApp, which would set it apart from Facebook in yet another important way, might be to charge its members for other products and services. The popular messaging app WeChat, which is predicted to bring in $1.1 billion this year, allows for purchases via the app, from physical goods like smartphones to digital items like stickers and games.

Although Facebook, like other tech firms, liberally stores and analyzes its members' postings, Zuckerberg's keynote included harsh words for the National Security Agency's policy of doing the same.

"It’s not awesome...The government kind of blew it on this," Zuckerberg said in response to a question about the consequences of Edward Snowden's revelations. "Trust is such an important thing when you're thinking about using any service where you'll share important and personal information."

Indeed: The 450 million people on WhatsApp will no doubt be watching Facebook to be sure Zuckerberg doesn't violate theirs.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said WhatsApp had 450 billion users, not 450 million.

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