So, this is awkward. WhatsApp, which says proudly that “privacy and security are in our DNA,” has just been outdone on the security front by its Facebook Messenger stablemate. And given that Messenger is basic at best on the security front, this is not good for WhatsApp’s two billion active users around the world. The two platforms have just released new security upgrades that seem remarkably similar, but beneath the surface that’s simply not the case. This new Messenger update is both more innovative and more secure than WhatApp’s own, and this from a platform that still cannot provide default end-to-end encryption and which acknowledges that it monitors user content.
Earlier this month, WhatsApp confirmed the launch of its “disappearing messages” feature. Users can set 1:1 or group chats (where they have admin rights) to automatically delete messages after seven days. While this has been pitched as a security and privacy enhancement, it falls way short. In fact it’s hard to imagine a less innovative and less impressive deployment of expiring messages than the one WhatsApp has provided. As I’ve said before, beneath its marketing messages, WhatsApp is not as secure as you might think.
Messages that are quoted in replies or forwarded will persist, as they will in cloud backups. Any message can be screenshot, without notice, and the fixed seven-day timeline is way too long. WhatsApp rival Signal offers a sliding timescale for disappearing messages that goes as low as five seconds, and WhatsApp’s original plans appeared to include such flexibility. Embarrassingly for WhatsApp, the secret conversations option on Facebook Messenger, where content is end-to-end encrypted, provides an expiring message slider that runs from five seconds to one day—almost exactly the same as Signal, albeit Signal offers a one week option as well. So, why didn’t WhatsApp offer the same?
A seven-day expiring message timer might make sense to keep storage under control, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of security or privacy protection. For that you need some form of delete once seen option. And here, again Facebook Messenger has just got the jump on WhatsApp, offering a feature upgrade that is a brilliant alternative to a timer. “We’re excited to introduce vanish mode on Messenger,” the platform announced last week, “which lets you send messages that disappear automatically—messages disappear after they’re seen, and you leave the chat.”
Vanish mode, which was first mentioned in September’s preview of new features, can be switched on and off within a chat, “to turn it on, swipe up on your mobile device in an existing chat thread and you’re in vanish mode. Swipe up again and you’re back to your regular chat.” The feature is rolling out by market, and will then be made available in Instagram.
I’m not suggesting this feature should be replicated by WhatsApp—Facebook Messenger is not a secure platform and the marketing for vanishing mode is unsurprisingly frivolous. “Share your weird,” Facebook says, “just be silly with your friends without it staying in your chat history.” But you can envisage a toggle within a more grown-up chat that switched between permanent and vanishing messages as required.
The reality is that in a normal chat, a user may decide that a specific message exchange needs to be more private than others and flick on an expiring option—perhaps to send a passcode or a sensitive document, link or image. In Messenger that can easily be done in secret conversations or in vanishing mode. In WhatsApp you need to delve into the chat settings to make the change.
Remember that caveat that WhatsApp pointed out when confirming its disappearing messages, that “it’s possible for someone to take a screenshot of a disappearing message and save it before it disappears.” Well, Facebook even offers some form of solution here as well. “If someone takes a screenshot of your chat while you’re using vanish mode,” it says, “you’ll be notified.” This is a great move.
The fear with WhatsApp is that its priorities are now torn between enhanced commercialization to monetize the platform for parent Facebook, and improving the core functionality of the messaging platform itself. This is a perfect example of where it’s getting the balance wrong. WhatsApp should have used its market lead to define the most usable and useful option for expiring messages, a swipe or a toggle or a clock icon (as with Messenger) to give users full control of their security and privacy. There were reports that WhatsApp was exploring an expiring media option—deleting images or videos attached to messages when a recipient leaves the chat. Any of these options would have been much better.
Instead the world’s leading messaging platform has been outdone and outshone by Facebook Messenger. This comes atop other security holes in WhatsApp’s functionality where it is falling behind—still no multiple platform option, still no secure backup option, still defaulting to saving media files on user devices. All of which needs to change and fast. Messenger’s vanish mode is aimed more at Snapchat than WhatsApp, of course, but even so it should serve as a warning to WhatsApp that it has seriously taken its eyes off the ball and needs to accelerate the deployment of a Mark 2 solution that more closely hits the mark.
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