WhatsApp privacy

One of the most widely used messaging platforms, WhatsApp, has almost 2 billion users globally. The free, cross-platform messaging program enables people to make video and voice calls, send text messages, and more. WhatsApp is particularly well-liked and trusted among friends and family who wish to stay in touch but live in different countries.

In the last couple of years, however, some of that user trust has eroded as the Facebook (now Meta) owned platform rolled out privacy policy updates in 2021 that sparked backlash and complaints from users about a lack of security and transparency on the app.

It’s natural to wonder, is WhatsApp safe? What happens to the information that’s exchanged can be a question of personal privacy.

Ivan Righi, senior cyber threat intelligence analyst at Digital Shadows, a San Francisco-based provider of digital risk protection solutions, says that many messaging services, including WhatsApp…mostly—claim that they do not keep logs of messages or calls made by users.

But people should be aware that messages are still stored on local devices and backed up to the device that’s running the app, Righi says. “Even if such messages are deleted from phones, it is likely that they could still be recovered from the phone with the use of forensic tools,” he says. “In some cases, however, the data may have been overwritten or encrypted, making it inaccessible after deletion.”

What are the privacy policy updates? Where’s the lack of transparency?

WhatsApp announced that users would soon be able to transfer their conversation chat history, images, videos, and voice messages from Android to iPhone via the Move to iOS app from Apple. With relation to its privacy policy, WhatsApp finds itself at the focus of criticism as the biggest, most important change was information-sharing with the larger Facebook Group. In addition, a ton of metadata—including info like your purchase history, location, device ID, and more— can be recorded and shared with third-party advertisers and other WhatsApp “partners.”

Is WhatsApp secure? What data does WhatsApp collect and how is it used?

WhatsApp is a messaging service owned by Facebook and has the ability to share user profile information with Facebook. Facebook and its other products may use this information to provide suggestions to you, personalize features and content, assist you in making purchases, and display suitable offers and advertisements across Facebook’s other products. Despite Facebook's claims to the contrary, the company gives third-party companies your data, including partners who use their analytics services, advertisers, law enforcement, etc.

Because WhatsApp is able to share data like your phone number and profile name with Facebook, some users may worry about the security. Misha Rykov, a privacy and data analyst at Mozilla, corroborates how more detailed information underlying the message known as metadata, including when it was sent and your IP address, can be collected and shared with so-called “Facebook companies.”

“So, Facebook can track who sends WhatsApp messages, when, to whom, from which location (if a user allows), etc - but not the content itself,” Rykov says “This creates a privacy concern for people who want full anonymity. These people should consider using more privacy-enhancing apps like Signal, Threema, Wire instead.”

Another thing to know about WhatsApp security: when you use the app to text with businesses on, can you count on those conversations actually being less private. That’s because messaging with businesses is different from messaging with your family or friends. For example, large businesses need to use hosting services to manage their communication so they have the option to use secure hosting services from Meta to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts. Thus, communication with such a business can be seen as a separate policy for WhatsApp privacy.

What safety and security features should I check out?

WhatsApp’s terms of service offers helpful info on using the platform safely. According to the WhatsApp Help Center, sharing content that is “illegal, obscene, defamatory, threatening, intimidating, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or incites or encourages conduct that would be illegal, or is otherwise inappropriate or violates our Terms of Service” is among the prohibited actions listed in its terms. If WhatsApp thinks a user is defying its terms of service, it will ban that user.

WhatsApp also includes safety and security features in the privacy settings, such as controlling who sees your information (such as last seen, profile picture, or status). There is also an option to turn off read receipts so no one can see that you’ve viewed their message, but it’s not an option in group chats. WhatsApp also gives you the option to block and/or report contacts and messages that may be inappropriate.

What’s WhatsApp’s track record with users’ personal information?

Previously, WhatsApp experienced a security breach in May of 2019 that exposed users to the installation of dangerous malware on their cellphones. WhatsApp made no mention of the number of users who were impacted.

So, is WhatsApp secure and safe to use?

WhatsApp has made efforts to ensure the security and safety of its users through their advanced features, however, this isn’t enough as there is an evident lack of transparency between the app and the users. If you choose to use it, it is your responsibility to utilize the features provided by the app to your advantage to maintain privacy.