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Why the WhatsApp web ‘bug’ isn’t a big deal

Teethings problems with the WhatsApp web service undermine your privacy, or so suggest recent headlines. Is it scaremongoring, or should you be worried?

You may have heard that there are a couple of things wrong with WhatsApp right now. Allegedly it’s leaking private data willy nilly, but the truth is it’s hardly the biggest privacy fail of the century. If last year’s iCloud hack was a storm, this is barely a breeze.

Here, we’ll take you through what’s really happening with WhatsApp, why it’s not that big a deal and what you can do to make your profile more secure. 

Can people on WhatsApp see all my private pictures?

No. That is categorically not what has happened here. Don’t believe the hype. Your d*** pics are safe.

So WhatsAppened?

Security researcher Indrajeet Bhuyan has discovered a couple of loopholes in WhatsApp. The first is a bug that means your profile picture remains visible even if, in the settings, you’ve requested that this is only available to people already in your WhatsApp contacts list. 

The second bug is related to the recently-launched WhatsApp web app. This is a new desktop-based version of WhatsApp that lets you send messages from a desktop or laptop PC, in a manner similar to Facebook Messenger. 

Any sent images that are subsequently deleted in conversations on WhatsApp mobile apps are not obscured on the web version of WhatsApp at the same time. 

So what’s the big deal?

WhatsApp gives you a choice of options in the way it handles your profile picture. You can make that photovisible to nobody, make it visible to everybody who has your phone number, or make it visible to only people in your phonebook.

The bug means everybody who has your phone number can, in theory, see your profile picture. But that’s probably not a big deal. In most cases, if you’ve given your phone number to someone, you probably won’t mind them seeing your face. If this is the case, this ‘bug’ is nothing to worry about. 

When should I be worried?

The only people that should be worried are those that have profile pictures they want to hide from a subset of people they’ve already given their phone numbers to. If it’s a relatively normal profile picture, of your face for example, then you needn’t worry. However if, for some strange reason, your profile picture is a shot of your genitals, of you murdering somebody, or doing something else untoward, then this might be of concern.

A potential employer who has your phone number could enter your phone number into their WhatsApp client and get a glimpse of you stabbing a horse. 

If you haven’t stabbed a horse (for example) or you haven’t given your phone number to anyone, then you’ve nothing to worry about. 

What can I do about the WhatsApp bug?

Not much, until WhatsApp releases fixed new versions of its apps. 

In the meantime you could change your WhatsApp profile picture to something that isn’t an identifiable picture of you if you’re concerned. If you’ve not set a profile picture on WhatsApp, you have little to worry about. 

The WhatsApp FAQ currently states:

“Even if your friends have different profile pictures of you saved elsewhere on their phones, they will only see your personally selected WhatsApp profile photo. If you choose not to set a profile photo, then your friends will see the photo they have saved for you in their address books, or a generic placeholder photo.” 

In any case, nobody else but your friends should be able to see your profile picture. If you think that this is an issue, the best course of action right now is to change your profile picture to something generic that doesn’t identify you. 

OK, what about the WhatsApp web bug?

If you’ve sent a picture message in a WhatsApp conversation and you want to delete it, you’ll need to do this both on your phone or tablet and on the separate WhatsApp web service, because right now the two aren’t synchronised in that way. 

As this is a recently-launched service, growing pains like this are to be expected. Again, WhatsApp hasn’t mentioned when a fix for this might be available. Until then, if this bothers you, resign yourself to having to delete two sets of images – or don’t use it until a patch has been rolled out. 

Pictures that are sent via WhatsApp conversations are automatically stored on your device or your phone’s SD card. This is often why you’ll find WhatsApp taking up a lot of space on your phone’s storage if you use it regularly. 

Deleting pictures from your devices means that they’ll sometimes appear blurred when you’re reading older conversations – this means WhatsApp is looking for the image on your device and it can’t find it. 

To fully delete a picture from a WhatsApp thread, you’d need to ask the other person or people in the chat thread to delete it as well. 


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