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Is A Popular App Sniffing Users’ Text Messages?

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Millions of people are embracing free mobile messaging services like WhatsApp and Kik as a way to avoid outrageous carrier charges for texting. But now one user says he has evidence that the popular service WhatsApp engaged in an egregious breach of his privacy.

Raj Marya is the CEO of a Silicon Valley company called Amazing Controls that provides software services to the building industry. To communicate with his friends and clients he uses a variety of messaging services such as Kik and Blackberry Messenger. Last Friday, he claims to have sent a message to friends via WhatsApp suggesting they try the service called PingMe. To his surprise, he received an apparently sarcastic response from WhatsApp that read “WhatsApp Server thinks you should switch to PingMe since it’s so free and awesome.” Soon after, Marya claims, the company deleted his account.

Marya provided screen grabs of his exchange with WhatsApp that appear to back up his account. The screen grabs are embedded below and show Marya’s initial message and the message he allegedly received from WhatsApp.

The allegations — if true — are damning and suggest that WhatsApp is monitoring and interfering with its customers’ personal conversations. This would be like receiving a scolding voice mail from AT&T (NYSE: T) after recommending Verizon in a personal phone call.

WhatsApp did not respond to repeated email requests for comment about the messages’ authenticity. News accounts this week reported that the service has been down in some places due to technical difficulties. For now, it is unclear if the message (if it is authentic) was sent by an individual, an outside hacker or as part of an automated service.

In an interview with paidContent, Marya said he has no financial or personal ties to either PingMe or WhatsApp.

WhatsApp, which lets users send messages and videos, is sold for 99 cents in U.S. app stores and is available in many other countries on a variety of platforms, including Nokia (NYSE: NOK). Reports suggest it has between 10 and 20 million users.

WhatsApp is one of a number of companies trying to cash in on discontent with the carriers’ rising text-message rates which have jumped to $20 per month. The charges are especially galling because of the tiny amount of data they contain — one recent estimate said that current rates are the equivalent of $1,250 per megabyte (consider that smartphone data plans can provide thousands of megabytes for $15). The upstart companies also appeal to consumers because they allow consumers to text internationally at no charge.

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