WhatsApp’s reputation is just going down and further since the time it announced its new terms and conditions collecting users data. According to recent developments, WhatsApp private chat groups and user profiles are coming up on Google search. For the unaware, this is not the first time this is happening. First reported by Athul Jayaram back in 2020, the issue was fixed but is now cropping up again. Phone numbers of the users and their profile pictures are surfacing in Google’s index, which brings up privacy concerns yet again with the use of WhatsApp — more details on the story ahead.
WhatsApp Fixed the Issue with ‘noindex’ Tag, But it is Cropping Up Again
WhatsApp had earlier fixed the issue. "Since March 2020, WhatsApp has included the "noindex" tag on all deep link pages which, according to Google, will exclude them from indexing. We have given our feedback to Google to not index these chats" a spokesperson from WhatsApp told IANS.
Either the ‘noindex’ tag isn't the best way to solve the issue, or it is a new problem that indexes private chats and user profiles of WhatsApp on Google search again. Rajshekhar Rajaharia, a cybersecurity researcher, said that adding the ‘noindex’ tag is only making the links surface back on Google again after a few months.
He further said that WhatsApp needs to figure out a better way to solve this issue if it actually cares about the privacy of its users. There were approximately 1,500 WhatsApp group invite links surfacing on Google search recently.
A thing worth noting is that the new links which have surfaced on Google do include the ‘noindex’ tag. Thus it becomes evident that ‘noindex’ tag on these links is not working for WhatsApp. Rajaharia observed that WhatsApp didn’t include the ‘robots.txt’ file on its ‘chat.whatsapp.com' subdomain, which has resulted in the links surfacing on Google. He said that developers use the ‘robots.txt’ file to communicate with the search engine crawlers about which files and pages to index and which to not.
It is not just the private chat groups, but also the user profile information which is indexed in Google. The URL reveals the pictures and phone numbers of the users. This is the last thing WhatsApp wanted at a time when it is battling privacy concerns. With the user profiles as well Rajaharia noticed that the ‘robots.txt’ file is missing which might be the reason for them being indexed on Google.
It will be interesting to see how WhatsApp responds to this issue. Let us know your thoughts on this issue.