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Why you need to use disappearing messages on WhatsApp and Signal

Disappearing messages are not new, but they are quickly becoming a popular option. Secure messaging app Signal has been offering the feature since 2016, and WhatsApp launched disappearing messages in November last year. But why should you use them?

Growth in the use of vanishing messages, which remove what you’ve sent after a set period of time, is being driven by a number of factors. On a basic level, WhatsApp and Signal chats are amassing huge amounts of data, putting pressure on smartphone storage space. Disappearing messages can get rid of this clutter, making them useful for anyone wishing to reduce their digital footprint.

And that’s without considering the privacy implications. While Signal and WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption stops anyone intercepting your messages from accessing their content, it can’t protect your message data if your device or the person you are talking to is compromised.

“Even if data is encrypted and protected by a code, keeping messaging information available on your smartphone poses far more of a threat than not having it anywhere at all,” says Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET. “Disappearing messages add a layer of security and assurance that the data is safe, because it no longer exists.”

How disappearing messages work

While vanishing messages are available on both WhatsApp and Signal, there are differences between the two, with the latter offering richer features and additional controls.

Signal users can set messages to disappear after any length of time between one second to four weeks – the timer starts after a message is read. You can also adjust the time or turn the feature off if you change your mind.

Each vanishing message will feature a timer countdown icon visible at the bottom of the message bubble. Signal’s disappearing messages can be turned on by anyone in the chat and are deleted from all locations when the timer reaches an end.

Signal also has a separate feature that allows you to send vanishing photos and videos. Simply tap on the + sign at the bottom left of the screen and select the tiny circular icon before sending the message.

WhatsApp’s vanishing messages are a new feature, so the customisation options are currently very limited. Disappearing messages vanish after seven days for all users and this cannot be adjusted. Although in the future it is likely that WhatsApp will add more controls to the vanishing messages.

In a WhatsApp one-to-one chat, either person can turn vanishing messages on. Anyone can enable disappearing messages in a group, unless the admin changes the settings to allow only admins to turn the feature on and off. Unlike Signal, the current seven day period on WhatsApp doesn’t need a message to be read. Messages sent will disappear even if they haven’t been opened or read.

When to use disappearing messages

Disappearing messages are an ideal tool for people who are concerned their chats could be checked – especially if there is anything about themselves they want to keep private, says Scott Sammons, information and data specialist Lighthouse IG. “This could apply to a domestic abuse setting or someone, for example, hiding the fact they are LGBTQ.”

Of course, disappearing messages are not going to work for every situation, especially in circumstances where a record needs to be kept. For instance, this may apply if you’re using Signal or WhatsApp for work purposes. “Disappearing messages will mean losing records that should be kept, such as conversations around deals, contracts or clients,” Sammons says.

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But at the same time, Randall Sarafa, chief product officer at Signal, highlights a recently-added feature in the app that allows you to keep messages for four weeks. “This is great for information you need to retain for a month, such as work messages or conversations with a doctor.” Signal is also about to launch a feature to allow you to specify a default vanishing message timer for all new chats, Sarafa says.

They’re certainly useful, but there are also caveats to consider when using disappearing messages. For example, if auto-downloads are enabled on WhatsApp, any media you receive via the app will still be automatically saved to your photos. You can turn this off in WhatsApp Settings > Storage and Data.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp warns, if you reply to a vanishing message, the quoted text could remain in the chat after seven days. And if someone creates a backup before a message is deleted, the disappearing message will be included.

Also important to note is, you should only use the feature when communicating with people you trust. Even when disappearing messages are enabled, there are other ways the chat can be saved, such as someone using a camera to take a picture of the screen, or taking screenshots.

“This is not for situations where your contact is your adversary – after all, if someone who receives a disappearing message really wants a record of it, they can always use another camera to take a photo of the screen before the message disappears,” Signal warns on its support site.

How to use disappearing messages on WhatsApp and Signal

To use the feature on WhatsApp, tap the group or chat name at the top of the screen and scroll down to disappearing messages. You can then turn the feature to ‘on’.

In Signal, you can tap the contact or group name and set a time after which you wish the messages to disappear. One you have done so, a little timer icon should appear detailing the time you have set with the contact or group.

Many people use both WhatsApp and Signal, but if you have a choice, Signal is probably the best platform for disappearing messages – and not just because it offers more features. “Signal is the better platform because of its stance on privacy, encryption and other functionality,” says Sammons. Moore agrees, pointing out that Signal’s company ethos is more privacy-conscious compared to WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook.

Apple’s privacy labels show Signal’s iOS app collects a lot less data compared to WhatsApp. “Data from the device can be used to target the user or even be sold to other platforms,” says Moore. “Signal will not profile the user, nor will it use any personal data from the device for financial gain.”

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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