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WhatsApp’s upcoming ephemeral messages won’t always disappear

Published Nov 2nd, 2020 7:31AM EST
WhatsApp Features
Image: oatawa/Adobe

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  • WhatsApp will soon support disappearing messages, but the feature isn’t as privacy-friendly as it might sound.
  • Users can’t customize the life of ephemeral messages, and they’ll only disappear after seven days if the feature is enabled on all the devices engaged in the same chat.
  • Recipients will still be able to quote, forward, reply, and take screenshots of ephemeral messages, which practically defeats the purpose of the extra security feature.

Facebook plans to merge all its three instant messaging apps, including Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp in the future, in a tool that will be end-to-end encrypted. The company has already merged Instagram and Messenger a few weeks ago. WhatsApp is Facebook’s most secure chat apps so far, and the only one that offers end-to-end encryption if you require that sort of protection from your chat apps and want to use a Facebook app. And Facebook plans to soon add a welcome security feature to WhatsApp chat, support for ephemeral messages, similar to what’s available on competing platforms. The feature isn’t yet live, but a FAQ section reveals various troubling issues about it. It turns out the disappearing messages will not be quite that ephemeral, as there are too many exceptions that would allow someone to save the contents of a message and even send it over other others.

It’s unclear when Facebook will roll out the disappearing messages feature on WhatsApp, but WaBetaInfo got wind of the first screenshots teasing the feature. The same blog has posted plenty of details about unreleased WhatsApp features in the past.

More interestingly, Facebook posted a FAQ section on the WhatsApp site that details the various problems that will allow these ephemeral messages to remain visible for longer than the sender might have intended to.

The ephemeral message can still be visible inside notifications, if it’s quoted in a message and if it’s forwarded to a chat that doesn’t have disappearing messages enabled. Moreover, the ephemeral messages will show up in backups.

  • If a user doesn’t open WhatsApp in the seven day period, the message will disappear. However, the preview of the message might still be displayed in notifications until WhatsApp is opened.
  • When you reply to a message, the initial message is quoted. If you reply to a disappearing message, the quoted text might remain in the chat after seven days.
  • If a disappearing message is forwarded to a chat with disappearing messages off, the message won’t disappear in the forwarded chat.
  • If a user creates a backup before a message disappears, the disappearing message will be included in the backup. Disappearing messages will be deleted when a user restores from a backup.

It’s also troublesome that a recipient can forward images and even take screenshots before the messages are supposed to vanish. Copy and pasting is also possible, and the app will not warn the sender that someone else is saving the contents of the messages.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the WhatsApp ephemeral messaging system is the lack of support for customizing the life of a disappearing message. You can either turn the feature on or off, and the messages will last for seven days if the feature is enabled.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.