Will WhatsApp's 'View Once' Images Make Any Difference to Privacy?

If anything, it may make things worse

Key Takeaways

  • WhatsApp’s ‘View Once’ images and videos disappear after one viewing.
  • Recipients can screenshot images. 
  • View Once media can be preserved in backups and viewed by WhatsApp if the recipient reports it.
Closeup of someone holding a smartphone with WhatApp displayed on the screen.

 Christian Wiediger / Unsplash

WhatsApp’s new disappearing photos feature, which self-destructs images and videos after a single viewing, might not be as private as it seems. 

It’s called View Once, and it lets you choose to send an image that can only be opened and viewed once. Recipients cannot forward, save, star, or share photos or videos sent this way, and any media not opened for 14 days will disappear. Or will it?

"As someone who works in a privacy protection company, I say that disappearing messages, images, and voicemails do not guarantee the protection of your privacy. Screenshots, autosave, and other features could still save them if the recipeint wanted to. With that truth, this type of feature could give the sender a false impression of security," Chris Worrell, chief privacy officer of Privacy Bee, told Lifewire via email.

One View Is More Than Enough

Mostly, we are aware that the messages and media we send are not private. Or rather, that they are only as private as your relationship with the recipient. Our message services might be protected from prying eyes by end-to-end encryption, but once they arrive, the other party can do whatever they like with your words, pictures, and videos.

"By making it appear more private than it actually is, young people are particularly at more risk than any others."

Disappearing messages aren’t new. Snapchat long-ago offered such a feature, although its "disappearing" messages turned out to be less ephemeral than promised. Disappearing images are new to WhatsApp, though. WhatsApp is used by all kinds of people, not all of them technically savvy enough to understand the risks. As such, these View Once messages might encourage a false sense of security. 

"Do disappearing images, messages, and voicemails really protect your privacy? No, disappearing images, messages, and voicemails don’t really protect your privacy for a few reasons," Aliza Vigderman, senior editor and industry analyst at digital security website Security.org, told Lifewire via email.

Security Holes

The most obvious way around this is to snap a screenshot, which will make a permanent copy of the image before it disappears. Screenshotting is built-in to phones, and while it is possible to disable it (try taking a screenshot in the TV+ app on an iPhone or iPad, and you’ll see that Apple blacks out the screen), that’s not the case for WhatsApp.

Also, "You won’t be notified if someone takes a screenshot or screen recording," says WhatsApp’s technical note.

We’ve already been well-trained to use screenshots to capture images on our phones, thanks to the impossibility of saving images from Instagram. And it doesn’t end there.

"WhatsApp stores this data (encrypted) for a few weeks on its servers. [Also], if the recipient reports the media, WhatsApp will be able to see it," says Vigderman.

Screenshots of how the WhatsApp disappearing messages feature works.

WhatsApp

That’s because the media in the message is only "view once" for the recipient. On WhatsApp’s back end, the image or video behaves much like any other. For instance, a disappearing image will be backed up as long as it remains unopened. That means a picture could be restored from a backup, even if it has already been viewed. 

It’s a lot to understand, even for the technically proficient user. And what about the children?

"By making it appear more private than it actually is, young people are particularly at more risk than any others," says Worrell. "They believe that their messages will vanish, not knowing the recipients can still store them elsewhere which makes them confident in sharing personal information that can cause them harm."

Almost Useful

Once you understand the implications, you might find that View Once is quite a useful feature. For instance, in a blog post, WhatsApp suggests that you use it to send a picture of a Wi-Fi password or some clothes that you’re trying on at the store. But even then, WhatsApp recommends only sending these sensitive messages to trusted individuals. 

In the end, View Once could be more trouble than it’s worth. People easily can make a permanent copy of any media you send them, so the only answer is to not send it in the first place. If anything, View Once is a me-too feature that makes WhatsApp look good, but that offers little actual utility and almost zero added privacy. 

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