Well, we've nearly reached the end of 2021. Like a storm, the WhatsApp privacy crisis that rocked the firm earlier this year swept into town and then swept out again. And what did the app learn? It's a question that's hard to answer in one sitting, with a year giving enough time to make improvements to an app, but not long enough to see if they bring about any real change. Still, the latest update to the desktop version of WhatsApp is something, I believe, we should be optimistic about for several reasons, along with the direction WhatsApp has seemingly started to head in as the year come and gone.
What needs to be said first, though, is this: the overwhelmingly clear message from users this year is that WhatsApp would do well to continue tweaking its platform with privacy-focused improvements. From really great new upgrades for both the Android and iPhone versions of the app to quieter updates that add better usability: WhatsApp is a platform that's still learning from its mistakes – and I think it should be afforded space to see these changes through.
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Earlier this year, red-faced WhatsApp execs had plenty of work to do when millions of people started ditching WhatsApp for Signal after the company tried to enforce new privacy terms. Since then, the company has grafted to restore its users' trust after getting blasted from all angles, rolling out updates that make privacy center stage of the app's offering.
For example, yesterday's news that WhatsApp is working on direct privacy settings for its desktop version can only be welcomed. Currently, WhatsApp does not allow users to manage their privacy settings from within the WhatsApp desktop app or WhatsApp web. WABetaInfo (opens in new tab), the resident expert on all things WhatsApp, reports that this will be overhauled following the recent addition of multi-device support, which helps “WhatsApp Desktop be independent of your phone and sees the app introducing missing features”, according to the report.
Cynics have suggested that privacy features like the new localized WhatsApp desktop privacy controls amount to locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. But unless the app suddenly announces that it has cracked the "holy grail" of privacy (through what would surely be an opaque and highly suspect statement), what else do we have to go on?
WhatsApp's incremental privacy improvements drip-fed to us throughout the year are the best barometer of change we have in lieu of the app going fully open-source like Signal – something that will never happen. To be clear: there's no question that Signal is the better app if privacy is what you value most – after all, the Signal protocol underpins WhatsApp's encryption. But where privacy and convenience converge determines what app a user will use from WhatsApp all the way to Peer-to-peer messaging services.
It's still not entirely clear why that is, but I'd hazard a guess that it's something to do with convenience versus privacy – and where that line falls for each of us. For most people, many of whom had existing WhatsApp groups and chains of contacts, the move over to a new app was just a bit...well..too much effort. If WhatsApp continues to sweeten the situation with real privacy upgrades like the new desktop settings, then suddenly things don't look so bad after all, though I'm sure some die-hard Signal fans might disagree.