Antivirus Guide

Is WhatsApp Safe?

Are your WhatsApp messages as private as you think they are?

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Aug 11, 2022
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Aug 11, 2022

WhatsApp is known as the “safe” messaging app. That’s because, unlike many other messaging apps, it provides end-to-end encryption between one user and another. End-to-end encryption isn’t all there is to an app’s security, though. An app can itself be vulnerable to hacking, for instance. Companies can and do experience data breaches. Sometimes they even sell customer data outright. And just how safe is WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption anyway?

Below, we get into WhatsApp’s claims about its security as a messaging service. We also dig into other aspects of the app’s security in an effort to answer the question, just how safe and secure is WhatsApp for you to use?

Most Popular Messaging Apps Based on Active Monthly Users

WhatsApp 2 billion users
Wexin / WeChat 1.26 billion users
Facebook Messenger 988 million users
QQ 574 million users
Snapchat 557 million users1

Is WhatsApp Safe?

WhatsApp is safe to use. It’s a secure way to send text and media, as well as to conduct video conference calls. Certainly, it’s as safe or safer than any other commercial messaging service out there. Does that mean it’s absolutely secure? Not exactly, but then what app can actually say that?

The answer to the question – is WhatsApp safe? – really depends, though, on how you define safety. Here are three perspectives to consider:

  • If you’re looking for a messaging app that will keep your messages to others safe and secure, WhatsApp definitely does that.
  • If you’re at all concerned about your metadata and how companies use it, you probably should be concerned over WhatsApp’s security.
  • Finally, as with any app, you can’t count on the company to keep you completely safe. You have to do your part as well to make sure you aren’t putting yourself at risk.

Did You Know: Browsing the web, using social media, and even messaging can be risky on public Wi-Fi. So we always recommend signing up with a reliable VPN like Surfshark and a top-rated identity theft service.

Surfshark VPN
Surfshark Browser

What Makes WhatsApp So Safe?

WhatsApp’s reputation and its popularity rest on its unique end-to-end encryption. When you send a message to another person through WhatsApp, that message is encrypted so that only that other person will receive it. In other words, it can’t be intercepted by a third party in transit. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sending text, images, or videos. If you send it, it’s encrypted. In fact, the same encryption applies if you’re making a voice or video call, making WhatsApp not just a secure messaging service but a secure conferencing service as well.

Of course, end-to-end encryption is only as secure as the encryption method itself. So, how safe is WhatsApp’s encryption? It’s about as safe as encryption gets on the commercial market these days. The company encodes all messages using AES-256.

According to a technical paper produced by Seagate, even under the best circumstances, it would take 77,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,0002 tries to crack AES-256 encryption. That’s an awfully big number, so let’s put it another way. AES-256 is the same encryption the U.S. military and intelligence agencies use. If it’s safe enough for them, we figure it’s safe enough to secure our texts to our sister.

FYI: AES-256 is a symmetric block cipher algorithm with a block size of 128 bits. The number 256 means it uses a conversion key made up of 256 bits.

The WhatsApp Dangers

No piece of technology is 100 percent secure. For one thing, as fast as we develop technology to protect us, we develop technology to break through those protections. Equally as important, as long as humans are the ones using technology, we represent a serious risk factor. We don’t always operate our devices as we should, and we make mistakes.

So, what exactly can go wrong if you’re using WhatsApp? Here’s a list.

Issues With the Privacy Policy

The most glaring security danger when it comes to WhatsApp is the one it has created itself. According to the company’s own privacy policy, it collects a good deal of metadata about its users. That includes your list of contacts, phone numbers, details about your usage habits, and information about your location.

WhatsApp claims it needs this information to provide its service, and that seems reasonable. The problem is that it also shares this information. In particular, it shares data with Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook. Facebook isn’t exactly known for its ethical handling of customer data. It doesn’t just collect user information. It has sold that information in the past. It’s also suffered data breaches and doesn’t always bother to tell users when it does. In fact, Brian Acton, WhatsApp founder, has publicly said that he regrets having sold out his users’ privacy by selling his company to Facebook.

However, things aren’t all doom and gloom when it comes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy. Metadata isn’t the same as raw personal data. Meta can’t track your individual activities and movements. In addition, you should know that most other messaging services operate in roughly the same manner as WhatsApp. Still, if you’re a hard-core privacy advocate, you might want to think carefully about using the app.

In the News: Brian Acton, WhatsApp founder, has publicly said that he regrets having sold out his users’ privacy by selling his company to Facebook in 2014.

Web Version Clones

While WhatsApp seems to have solved most of the mobile app’s early security concerns (see below), the web version remains vulnerable to attack.

In particular, the web version of WhatsApp can be and has been cloned. When hackers substitute a dummy version of the site for the real thing, they can trick users into clicking on links that install all sorts of malware. One way to avoid this problem is to utilize one of the best antiviruses — one that keeps an eye out for fake websites.

Avast Antivirus - Mac is Protected
Avast Antivirus – Mac is Protected

Fast Exporting

One of the great features of WhatsApp is that you can export chats quickly. All you need to do is select the particular chat, choose an email address, and press send. Export is lightning fast.

The downside of this feature is that anyone who had physical access to your mobile device could quickly export your messages to their email address. Of course, someone with access to your device could also upload malware that might clone your entire phone. Exporting, though, can be done in less than a minute.

Older Versions of the Software

It is worth pointing out that, like most software, when WhatsApp originally came out, it had its fair share of security holes.

  • GIF hacking: For a time, hackers could send users GIFs containing malicious code designed to access the app’s memory. Opening the code triggered the attack. This vulnerability was fixed with version 2.19.244.
  • Pegasus: In 2019 hackers discovered a flaw in the way that WhatsApp handled missed calls. The flaw allowed hackers to install a program known as Pegasus onto a recipient’s phone. The program, originally developed by Israeli intelligence, gave hackers total access to the user’s phone.

WhatsApp has dealt with all the known vulnerabilities through patches and various updates. However, if you should get hold of an older version of the app, you’ll still be vulnerable. It’s always important to have the most recent version of whatever software you use.

Issues With Recipients

Maybe the biggest hole in WhatsApp security is one that WhatsApp itself can’t fix: you. WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption is so good that it can lure you into a false sense of security, a belief that you can send anything to anyone without fear of it winding up in the wrong hands. The problem with that mindset is that another person is involved in the exchange and ultimately you can’t ever be certain what they might do with your message.

Message recipients can use screen capture software to make a copy of anything you send, from unflattering remarks about your boss to intimate pictures of yourself. Likewise, users on the other end of a video call can record everything. In addition, users always have the option to send an alert to WhatsApp about inappropriate messages, and depending on the situation, WhatsApp could share these with law enforcement. Ultimately, nothing is totally private, and if you’re at all worried about the content of a message being shared, you’re better off not sending it in the first place.

How to Protect Yourself on WhatsApp

In the end, your safety on WhatsApp is mostly down to you and your behaviors. The app itself is safe enough, but only if you use it appropriately. Here are just a few suggestions for how to do that.

  • Use a VPN: Your messages are safe in transit, but if someone hacks your phone, they can see what you’re up to. If you’re using public Wi-Fi, you’re vulnerable to a hack. Using a VPN from our list of Best VPNs ensures that your internet traffic is secure, protecting you from hackers.
  • Use a safe password: Your devices are vulnerable at multiple points, including the device itself, every app you use, and every website you visit. Creating strong passwords prevents anyone from gaining access. Want to know if your password is strong enough? Check out our free password strength checker.
  • Make use of two-factor authentication: WhatsApp offers two-factor authentication (2FA). This means a hacker needs more than just your password to log in. You have to turn this on, though, to get the benefits.
  • Never share passwords with anyone: It doesn’t matter how safe your password might be if you go around sharing it with people.
  • Install an antivirus for extra protection: Antivirus software can alert you the moment your security has been compromised; in some cases, it can actually prevent you from being compromised in the first place.
  • Turn on safety features when available: WhatsApp offers a number of useful safety features, such as “disappearing messages,” which removes all text and media messages seven days after they are posted. You can also add “fingerprint lock” if you have an Android phone or Face ID if you use an iPhone. Finally, take the time to check all your settings to make sure you aren’t broadcasting your personal information.
  • Be careful who you message: When you’re online, be careful who you interact with. Don’t trust anyone you don’t know with your personal information.
  • Be careful what you message: If you are worried about a message falling into the wrong hands, don’t send it. Never assume anything you send is completely private, since the fact is, it isn’t.
  • Keep your software up to date: The reason companies release updated versions of their software is to fix problems, particularly security flaws. If you want to make sure you’re fully protected, you should always use the most recent version.

What’s That?: A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, routes your internet signal through a secure server and assigns you an untraceable IP address. This means you can surf the web in safety and in anonymity.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that WhatsApp is an extremely safe messaging app. It’s had some security issues in the past, but new versions have taken care of those. In addition, some privacy rights groups have questioned the way the app shares metadata with its parent company, Meta. However, risks to your private information are low, and most messaging apps collect the same kinds of data.

When it comes to messaging, you won’t find a safer, more secure app out there. WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption ensures no one can spy on your texts in transit. Does that mean you can say what you want and do what you like? Of course not. There are lots of ways for your messages to wind up in the wrong hands, not the least of which is a recipient who decides to share them. With a few practical safety measures and a healthy dose of common sense, though, you should be able to use WhatsApp worry-free.

FAQs

Want to know even more about whether WhatsApp is safe to use? Check out our list of the most frequently asked questions, along with our best answers.

  • What are the dangers of using WhatsApp?

    The biggest danger to using WhatsApp is sending text or media you don’t want others to see. WhatsApp itself is entirely safe. The company does collect some metadata about you, but nothing that could identify you. More importantly, its end-to-end encryption ensures no one can intercept your messages. However, you can never be certain what a recipient might do with a message you sent. If you want to be entirely safe, don’t send any messages you wouldn’t want to end up in the wrong hands.

  • Can you get hacked using WhatsApp?

    You cannot get hacked using WhatsApp. All messages are fully encrypted end-to-end using AES-256 encryption. In the past, flaws in the software allowed hackers to infiltrate devices, but the company has patched all of these, as well as fixed them in the most recent versions. Of course, your device itself might not be immune to hacking, and if a hacker infiltrates that device, your texts might be vulnerable. WhatsApp itself, however, is completely secure.

  • How can you make WhatsApp more secure?

    You can make WhatsApp more secure by turning on some of the app’s built-in safety features. For instance, activate two-step authentication, use fingerprint identification or Face ID, and fine-tune your privacy settings so you’re sharing information only with those you intend to.

  • How can you stop WhatsApp tracking?

    To stop WhatsApp tracking, turn off the app’s Live Location feature. To stop sharing your location in specific chats and groups:

    1. Open the individual or group chat.
    2. Select Stop Sharing

    To stop sharing your location in all chats and groups:

    1. Tap More Options.
    2. Choose Settings>Account>Privacy>Live location.
    3. Select Stop Sharing>Stop.
  • How do I know if someone is checking me on WhatsApp?

    To find out if someone is checking you on WhatsApp, find out who has viewed your status. To do this,

    1. Navigate to the Status tab.
    2. Choose “A List of All Status Will Be Known.”
    3. Choose a particular status by selecting the eye icon next to it.
    4. You’ll see a list of users who have checked that status.

    There is no way to check who has viewed your profile.

Citations
  1. Statista. (2022, Jan). Most popular global mobile messenger apps as of January 2022, based on number of monthly active users.
    statista.com/statistics/258749/most-popular-global-mobile-messenger-apps/

  2. Seagate. (2008). 128-Bit Versus 256-Bit AES Encryption.
    https://www.seagate.com/blog/types-of-encryption/