WhatsApp had a great year 2021—despite the terrible start of the year. The world’s largest messenger has released important updates, including encrypted backups and Access to multiple devicesbecause it offers secure messaging on a scale that no other platform can match.
While the headlines at the time of the Facebook backlash suggested WhatsApp’s main competitors are Telegram and Signal, in reality it is Apple’s iMessage. This plays into the privacy battle between Apple and Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg has called out The role of iMessage in limiting WhatsApp’s installation base in the United States
While iMessage’s biggest advantage over WhatsApp is that it is not owned by Facebook / Meta, with resulting advantages in the metadata it collects and does not collect, the reality is that WhatsApp has risen in the last few months before iMessage and is now a much better platform for its 2 billion (and counting) users.
That was not the case a year ago. Back then, WhatsApp was limited to a single device, with a rudimentary desktop scraping app the only option for multiple devices, its backups relied on the Apple and Google clouds without the protection of its end-to-end encryption and shadows of Facebook data collection was great.
Apparently, in the wake of the backlash on its Facebook links, WhatsApp has stepped back and fixed the weaknesses with encrypted backup and multiple devices. But just as critical iMessage has fallen further behind due to its own problems.
Reported Pegasus attacks and Apple’s decision to use an AI filter to detect nude images sent to or by minors have tarnished the intrinsic sense of end-to-end security, and now there’s a new area in the iMessage continues to fall behind.
Ephemeral (or vanishing) messages are becoming increasingly important for secure platforms. While it wouldn’t have helped in this instance – it was too immediate – the embarrassing advertisement for a screenshot of a WhatsApp group used by senior British politicians highlighted the obvious weakness of secure messaging. If you have access to the news, you can do whatever you want with them.
WhatsApp introduced disappearing messages late last year, initially gently with a limited option to delete sent and received messages after a week. Unlike iMessage’s option to clean up chat histories on a user’s device, WhatsApp’s option lets you choose not to keep messages you send on your contacts’ devices for a long time, eliminating the risk of that old content may appear undesirable in the future.
Now WhatsApp has taken the next step – and it’s a radical change. Users who update their apps have the option of choosing a time frame for individual chats – 24 hours to 90 days. This is a significant improvement over what we had before.
This still doesn’t come close to what Signal, who leads the package, where users can choose to have messages disappear after just a second, making even an instant screenshot difficult. But I would expect WhatsApp to continuously expand its own offering in order to get closer and closer to it, and ultimately to start one-time ad messages in addition to the photos and videos that are already available. The Facebook Messenger already offers a “disappearance mode” so that this can be easily reproduced.
More importantly, WhatsApp is now compliant with Signal, offering disappearing messages by default for all new chats – Signal added this earlier this year. This is important. So far, most of us store messages for the long term, essentially indefinitely. But we’re starting to see a shift in functionality towards more secure messaging, which is more like face-to-face conversations that aren’t saved forever by default.
While you still have to manually choose to hide existing chats, if you set WhatsApp to its default, all new groups and individual chats you set up will have that option. We’ll see what this shot looks like in the months ahead.
As more stories hit the headlines, years of news out of context, and today’s standards retrospectively applied to the past, more and more users should be tempted to automatically delete their messages by default, especially for groups.
Just think of the benefits of photos and videos shared with coworkers or not stored on countless devices and cloud backups at night, or the sensitive images shared in previous relationships. Yes, saving images and screenshots remains a risk, but this is very different from the standard saving in searchable databases.
As with most secure messaging features, WhatsApp relies on end-to-end encryption as the standard given its unrivaled installation base. And so, the adoption of disappearing news will mark the change in the industry.
My advice is still to use WhatsApp instead of iMessage or Android Messages or (definitely) Messenger or Telegram, but also to install and use Signal wherever your contacts are on this platform.
I would also recommend experimenting with message disappearing on both WhatsApp and Signal. Start with groups where you may not want content to hang around forever and with chats that often share sensitive content. You can then form a view of whether this should be your default for new chats.