Should we send self-destructing WhatsApp messages?

A new function warns the sender if the recipient tries to download temporary photos and text messages

WhatsApp has a new function that gives the sender the option to control whether the recipient can download a message’s content. Karl-Josef Hildenbrand (Picture alliance/Getty Images)
José Mendiola Zuriarrain

“You have to think twice before sending anything on WhatsApp,” warned digital law expert Borja Adsuara. To much fanfare, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a new function that allows the sender to control whether the recipient can download a message’s content. Although WhatsApp has a high level of security and privacy, thanks to its end-to-end encryption, there is always a risk that shared information could be viewed, shared or stored by third parties.

Zuckerberg hasn’t hesitated to describe the new feature as a “superpower.” Is it really? Temporary WhatsApp messages allow users to send content that automatically disappears after a set period of time chosen by the sender. The feature was designed to improve privacy and control over conversations on the platform. Now, when sending a message or multimedia content, the sender can choose to have it disappear after 24 hours, seven days or 90 days.

The delicate management of temporary messages

By enabling disappearing messages by default, you reduce the likelihood that shared information will remain stored on the devices of conversation participants. That reduces the risk of sharing content that the sender wants to keep private or share only with the specified recipient. Uses include sensitive information such as credit card numbers and account numbers or sensitive content such as compromising photos.

With the new feature, the recipient sees a new button at the top of the chat that allows them to save this temporary message to their device. In reality, they can only send a request: the sender will receive an alert indicating that the recipient wants to immortalize the temporary content. The sender has the power to approve or deny this request.

But these features do not completely eliminate the risks associated with losing control over shared information. Recipients can still take screenshots or forward temporary messages before they disappear.

An underwhelming superpower

The new feature adds an additional layer of security by informing the sender that the recipient is attempting to download or save an ephemeral message, and allowing or blocking this action. But it is more of a declaration of intent than of real protection. “It is an issue that generates a lot of confusion. It is important to highlight that everything we publish on the internet, be it a blog or a social network, is no longer under our control,” explained Fernando Suárez, president of the General Council of Computer Engineering Colleges.

“Nothing prevents, for example, making recordings of the mobile screen and thus saving conversations or messages that can only be seen once or doing so before the sender deletes it,” said Suárez. WhatsApp does not control what happens on the recipient’s phone once the content appears on their screen: it can be screenshotted, or the message can be copied, without the sender being aware of it.

Experts view this new function as a step forward in defending the privacy of information circulating on the Internet. “I see something positive in this measure, not so much in the functionality of WhatsApp itself, but that it can build collective awareness that even what a user deletes on the Internet can be recovered, sometimes even without their consent or knowledge,” said Fernando Suarez.

Experts agree that senders must establish their own layers of protection, limiting the information that could compromise them both on WhatsApp and on social networks. When sending messages, you lose control over the shared information. It can be forwarded, screen captured, stored in backup copies, or even viewed through third-party applications.

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