Beware of adding people without their permission in WhatsApp groups

We cannot add people in a WhatsApp group without their permission. This has been made clear by the Spanish Agency for Data Protection (AEPD), according to this resolution issued against a Town Hall that wanted to use this medium to send informative circulars to its neighbors.

Cuidado con añadir personas sin su permiso en grupos de Whatsapp

It happened last month in a small municipality called Boecillo, located in the province of Valladolid (Spain), although the events took place throughout last year. The mayor of the town decided to create one of these groups in the well-known application of WhatsApp in order to send circulars to citizens. In this way, the information would arrive immediately and comfortably to all of them, which a priori seemed like a great idea. The total number of components in the group was 256 contacts, the maximum amount accepted by this platform in the creation of groups.

What is the problem, then?

The problem, obviously, is privacy. That is why it was the AEPD which took up the matter. What happens is that the WhatsApp application shows the phone numbers of the components of a group to all of them. People’s telephone number is a piece of information protected by the privacy laws and we cannot spread it without their express consent.

What happened is that one of the neighbors who was included in the group without prior notice reported the fact to the AEPD. The Agency issued a resolution recently stating that there has been “a breach in the duty of secrecy by the Boecillo Town Hall in relation to personal data of the residents included in the WhatsApp group” and describes the events as a “serious infringement”.

The penalties provided for this type of infringement range from 40,001 to 300,000 euros.

Fortunately for the Town Hall and its mayor, the Agency did not apply the sanction and the case was closed with only the notification. All this thanks to the fact that it was proven that the appropriate measures were taken quickly to minimize the exposure of personal data as soon as they were aware of the infringement. In addition, the consistory alleged that it was due to an error, when creating a group when what they wanted was to create a mailing list.

Creating WhatsApp groups in the family environment or friendships will not bring us problems. At least it should not, because it is assumed that we could prove that there is a previous relationship that allows us to use phone numbers for that purpose. Also, let’s think that the probability of someone reporting us is really insignificant.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this risk exists and we should remember this case as an example. Surely we all know similar situations that rub or invade the illegality in environments, for example, schools, associations, clubs, etc. In these cases, the Law obliges us to collect the authorization of the members of the group before being included in it.

What should the Town Hall have done?

The options that both the Town Hall and other organizations have to disseminate information through legal applications are, among others:

  • Collect authorizations. Even though it is perhaps the least advised by the work involved, this would have been a solution to create a group of Whastapp of legal form in this case.
  • Use the WhatsApp dissemination tool. We can send messages in bulk to our entire contact list or to some selected contacts. In this way, whoever receives it only sees the phone number of the sender, but not that of the other people who receive the message. Only those users who have saved the number of the person who sends it in their contact list will receive it.
  • Telegram channels. Use this other Telegram service that we explained earlier and that has clear advantages. It allows information to flow only to users who wish to receive it. Whoever sends it should only advertise the name of the channel so that, whoever is interested, can subscribe. The drawback is that not everyone uses Telegram, even though it is a messaging application with clear advantages over WhatsApp.
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