WhatsApp: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Purchased by Facebook in 2014, What’s App now boasts over 1 billion users worldwide in 109 different countries. What’s App is a messaging app that uses the internet as its medium. It was particularly helpful when unlimited texts were still years away, as it allowed for communication with contact abroad without the international texting charges. It is popular with teenagers because it allows for group chatting, voice messaging, and real-time location sharing.
Honestly, when I began research for this app, I expected to find all kinds of privacy issues and location issues and just overall negativity. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Now, What’s App is still not perfect, and I will get to some of the safety issues in a moment. For now, I want to take a moment to praise the app for what they have done right.
1. What’s App uses end-to-end encryption to protect your messages. This means that only the sender and the receiver can see the message and that it cannot be hacked in transit. The What’s App team cannot even hack their own encryption, so I would say this is pretty safe.
2. What’s App uses two-factor verification. Really, anything that uses two-factor
verification is worlds safer than those that don’t.
3. Group chats are the best thing in the world when you are trying to coordinate an event. However, they can also be one of the most irritating things in your daily life. Eighty-five text messages in 3 minutes can be an overwhelming thing to deal with. So the fact that What’s App allows for messaging multiple people at once without the annoying agony of a group chat is an absolute life-saver.
What’s App has a lot going for it, but, again, it is not perfect. There are a couple concerns that we have about What’s App.
1. When you create a What’s App account, the privacy settings are automatically set to allow any user to see your last seen location, your profile picture, and your status. This can easily be fixed in the privacy settings to show to only your contacts or to nobody (although it is a messaging app, so setting it to nobody is counter-intuitive).
2. Because it uses the internet to send messages, What’s App uses data. When you are on Wifi, this is not a problem, but if you are on a limited data plan, this is something you need to be aware of.
3. Make sure you download the right one. Apparently, hackers have a particular affinity for using the What’s App logo to disguise their sinister websites. If you download the wrong one, it could implant malware into your device. When you download the app on your phone, it is relatively easy to tell which one is the right one, but apparently this becomes harder when downloading the desktop version.
4. While end-to-end encryption prevents your messages from being hacked in transit, that security goes away once it is decrypted on your device. Backups are also unencrypted, so it is important to have privacy settings on your devices and to be aware of basic technology security issues like phishing.
5. Really, my biggest concern with What’s App is the real-time location sharing. Now, to be fair, there are security settings in place with the location settings which I applaud What’s App for. You can pick who you are sharing your location with and specify a specific amount of time (30 minutes, 2 hours, or 8 hours) for your location to continue broadcasting. This can be a very helpful tool for parents who want to keep track of their teenagers on prom night. This can also be helpful if you have an event instead of sending 100 people the directions. However, location sharing should be limited, and the very real dangers of location sharing should be made clear to anyone who uses the app.
What’s App is, again, a tool. And, as long as that tool is used correctly, What’s App can be a valuable keeper. Just be aware of the dangers and aware of the fact that the way you use the tool determines whether it helps or harms.