Is WhatsApp’s new feature good for privacy? The short answer is ‘No’.
Today WhatsApp confirmed on its blog that it’s rolling out a new feature to all users: Disappearing messages.
“When disappearing messages is turned on, new messages sent to a chat will disappear after 7 days, helping the conversation feel lighter and more private.”
To many users, the idea of disappearing messages sounds like a good one, and a privacy feature that other messaging apps offer.
However, WhatsApp’s offering is definitely not the same as that provided by Signal, Telegram or even Snapchat. Here’s why.
Let’s weigh up the pros and cons
It isn’t secure. Features like this are easy to circumvent, all it takes is a screenshot. It’s important to note that WhatsApp itself isn’t talking about this in terms of security. Its own announcement focusses on the feeling of privacy, saying the feature helps make “…the conversation feel lighter and more private”. Later it notes that either person can turn disappearing messages on or off, which means that even if you decide not to keep a copy of a sensitive conversation on your phone, the person you’re talking to can.
A history lesson is useful here too – when Snapchat started the trend for disappearing messages a few years ago, apps and websites that allowed users to secretly save images they’d been sent appeared in response. It didn’t end well – the snapsaved.com website was breached and leaked 200,000 ‘deleted’ images.
Another problem with WhatsApp’s disappearing messages, and with the app in general, is that by default media is saved onto the device. If you can’t be sure your recipient has turned off this setting, any photos or videos you send will automatically download to their device, whether you set the message to disappear or not.
Seven days is also a pretty long time, and you (currently) can’t adjust this expiration time like you can with Signal, Telegram and Snapchat. These services offer additional privacy features, including “screenshot alerts” and hidden previews.
As a comparable privacy feature to disappearing messages offered by other communication tools, this one from WhatsApp just doesn’t hit the mark, but I guess that’s something we’ve come to expect from the developers at Facebook. That being said, if they get around to developing it to the point of being a real privacy feature, they’ll gain our full support. Overall, the major disadvantage of this feature as it stands right now is that it creates a false sense of security. Remember, just because you don’t have a copy of a conversation, that doesn’t mean nobody else does.
More information on WhatsApp’s disappearing messages.