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Saturday, November 28, 2020

WhatsApp disappearing messages: What it means for you, and the loopholes

For WhatsApp users, this is a much-needed feature and will certainly improve privacy. By turning on disappearing messages, users will get some more control over which chats are getting saved.

Written by Shruti Dhapola , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 6, 2020 10:36:04 am
Disappearing messages, as the name suggests, are messages that will disappear or automatically get deleted from a chat after sometime.

‘Ephemeral messaging’ has made its way to WhatsApp. The Facebook-owned messaging app has officially announced a new feature — ‘disappearing messages’ — to the platform, which will start rolling out to all users globally by this month. So what exactly are ‘disappearing messages,’ and why is WhatsApp introducing this feature to the app? We explain below:

What are disappearing messages? 

Disappearing messages, as the name suggests, are messages that will disappear or automatically get deleted from a chat after sometime. The idea of ‘ephemeral’ messages is not new, and WhatsApp is not the first app to offer this. Other encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, Signal, Wire already offer such an option.

So why is WhatsApp introducing this feature? 

WhatsApp says this will bring a new level of privacy to the app. In a blogpost, the company said, “When conversations aren’t permanent, people can speak more freely and feel more comfortable being their authentic selves, whether that be their wacky side or being more honest about their feelings. This is a huge step for WhatsApp as we introduce ephemerality to many people for the first time ever and help them experience a new level of privacy.”

Messages on WhatsApp are already end-to-end encrypted, meaning no third-party or even WhatsApp can access these messages and read them. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

How will disappearing messages work? 

WhatsApp says the disappearing messages setting will work across individual chats and group chats as well. WhatsApp says once a user turns on the setting, messages in a chat or a group will disappear automatically after seven days.

In group chats, admins will be the ones controlling the disappearing messages option. Users, too, will have the option of turning off the setting if they change their mind.

If disappearing messages are turned on, media files such as pictures or videos sent in the chat will disappear. But they will be saved on the phone if the auto-download option is turned on.

How is WhatsApp’s disappearing message feature different?  

There is a difference on how disappearing messages will work on WhatsApp when compared to other messaging apps. Apps like Telegram, Wire, Signal typically offer an option where users can set a preferred time for their messages to disappear — this can range from a few seconds to a day to even a week.

On Telegram, one has the option of starting a secret chat, where they can set a timer limit after which messages disappear. The timer can be set for one second to a week. Wire gives options ranging from 10 seconds to four weeks for messages to disappear. Signal lets users turn on disappearing messages for each chat individually and they can set a time limit from five seconds to a week.

WhatsApp is not giving this kind of customisation, it has decided the time limit of all users, which is fixed at seven days.

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Is there some way a disappearing chat could still get saved on WhatsApp?   

WhatsApp’s disappearing messages feature does have some loopholes. For example, if you decide to activate this feature, and the other user doesn’t open WhatsApp during the seven-day period, while the message might disappear, the other user could still see a preview of the same in their notifications tab.

WhatsApp also says that if a user replies to a message where the initial text is quoted, this text will remain in the chat after the seven-day period. Further, if someone forwards a message to another user, who does not have the disappearing messages feature turned on, the message will not get deleted from there.

If a message gets backed up to the cloud before disappearing, it will be included in the backup. However, when a user restores the backup, that message will get deleted. As always someone could take a screenshot of the message or forward it to someone else before it disappears.

What does the new feature mean for users and for WhatsApp? 

For WhatsApp users, this is a much-needed feature and will certainly improve privacy. By turning on disappearing messages, users will get some more control over which chats are getting saved. Of course, as pointed out already, nothing on the internet gets truly erased, thanks to screenshots.

For WhatsApp, meanwhile, it will raise some tricky new questions given the app is already under pressure from authorities in several countries, including India, over tracing of messages. WhatsApp has already said it cannot allow tracing of messages given the end-to-end encrypted feature and that it does not store messages or any kind of user data on its servers. With disappearing messages, authorities could face a new set of issues when it comes to recovering messages from WhatsApp, escalating the clash further.

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