Founded in 2009, WhatsApp has quickly launched into immense popularity- with a whopping 1.5 billion users in over 180 countries; there is no denying the scope and impact that WhatsApp has, primarily because of its massive user base.
However, with a messaging platform as gigantic as WhatsApp, with over 65 billion messages being sent each day, security issues and privacy concerns are bound to arise.
From the arsenal of security threats and vulnerabilities that WhatsApp faces each day, mentioned below are the most pressing security risks that users need to be cautious of:
Perhaps the most apparent ghost haunting the realm of WhatsApp is the ghost of malware.
Malware, an enjambment of the terms ‘malicious’ and ‘software,’ is highly prevalent on the Facebook-owned messaging platform, mainly because of its massive user base, which invites hackers and cyber-criminals alike to exploit the vulnerabilities of the messaging service.
On the mobile app, hackers utilize a series of ways to infiltrate the messaging service, some of which include:
Hackers have exploited the need for users to gain exclusivity by integrating stardom with the popularity of WhatsApp, creating a sketchy messaging service by the name of ‘WhatsApp Gold.’
Instead of the standard green icon, WhatsApp Gold had a gold icon and promised its users exclusive chats with celebrities. However, all the app ever did was to collect users personal information through exposed malware.
WhatsApp Video Calling:
If you thought that cyber-criminals could only spread malware in WhatsApp through its messaging feature, you were unfortunately mistaken.
Through the video calling feature integrated into WhatsApp, hackers can send malware that collects sensitive information through third party links within the function.
Most of us who use WhatsApp regularly have probably been at the receiving end of chain messages urging us to click on a link to ‘win $50000.’
Well, with a premise as unbelievable as that, it’s a surprise people fall into the trap. But it is through these sketchy and shady links that hackers and cyber-criminals scoop through our smartphones to collect data on us, which could later be exploited in a multitude of ways.
The consequence of opening links on WhatsApp can be felt when we take into perspective that Skygofree, a spyware that could prove to the most significant threat when it comes to privacy concerns.
Skygofree could efficiently be utilized by cyber-criminals to take pictures and record WhatsApp messages, including audio recordings, location, passwords, browsing history to name a few.
- New color feature:
A specific type of malware found in WhatsApp trapped users by claiming to change the colors of the messaging service.
The malware would then instruct users to send the message to 10 contacts or 5 WhatsApp groups, which would then result in the user’s smartphone being bombarded with fake notifications and advertisements that make the hackers a profit.
WhatsApp Web Malware:
Apart from this, many hackers masquerade themselves as WhatsApp Web, to install malware onto computers, which could have dreadful consequences.
To prevent this situation from occurring, users need to make sure that they are installing the authentic version of the messaging software on their devices.
2-Unencrypted Backups on WhatsApp:
Messages on WhatsApp are encrypted through ‘End-to-End’ encryption, which is a critical feature that WhatsApp prides itself in.
End-to-End encryption, to put it in simpler terms, is a type of encryption that allows the messages to be decoded only by the recipients and the sender’s devices, which prohibits any third party, including WhatsApp and Facebook from viewing the content of your messages.
However, a factor that could seriously undermine End-to-End encryption is that WhatsApp allows you to store a backup of your messages on your device, in case they get deleted mistakenly.
There are two types of backup available on WhatsApp; the first one is a local backup on your device whereas the second type allows a cloud-based backup.
On Android, WhatsApp backups are stored on Google Drive, whereas for iOS, backups are stored on iCloud.
Both of these backup files contain unencrypted messages and media, which gives it the status of sacrificial cows for cyber-criminals, adamant on stealing your data.
Although no such large scale hacks on Google Drive and iCloud have occurred yet, that doesn’t mean that it’s a cause for celebration. Instead, WhatsApp users need to be more vigilant than ever.
Apart from hackers wanting to conduct large scale phishing attacks, these backup files are nothing short of gold for governments looking for new espionage techniques.
3- Facebook’s relation to WhatsApp:
Let’s get it out in the open; Facebook doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to safeguarding its user’s privacy.
With blood still gushing out from the wounds inflicted on the privacy landscape by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s safe to say that people are still wary of Facebook.
When Facebook announced that it was integrating WhatsApp in 2014, to say that people were skeptical is the understatement of the century.
The European Union (EU) only approved of the transaction after Facebook assured that they would store the data for both the platforms separately.
The steps taken by Facebook in 2016 are following Facebook’s plans for the future since the tech giant announced that it would be launching a single integrated messaging tool for WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram.
The announcement, combined with the notorious reputation that Facebook has garnered over recent years, has raised many suspicions from cyber-specialists over the world since it gives more power to Facebook, which has proven it to be untrustworthy despite the promises made.
4- WhatsApp Status:
Launched on February 24, 2017, the WhatsApp status has catapulted in popularity.
Although the WhatsApp status closely mimics the favorite Instagram stories, it was welcomed by users with open hands.
However, unlike the story feature on Instagram, the function present on WhatsApp raises some questions.
The Instagram story was designed to be seen by the general public, whereas all of your contacts can view the WhatsApp story, whether you want them to or not.
Fortunately, for those WhatsApp users who take privacy seriously, the status settings can be configured in such a way that allows users to block certain users from viewing their status, thereby effectively minimizing the risks of hacking and data manipulation.
As is the case with Instagram and Snapchat stories, users will find that their WhatsApp stories will disappear after 24 hours.
5-Fake News on WhatsApp:
Perhaps the most dreadful vulnerability present on WhatsApp is the circulation of fake news and hoaxes through the messaging service.
Many social media platforms have been at the forefront of spreading misinformation and false claims through their platforms.
Amongst these platforms, Facebook and WhatsApp have been the most prevalent, with Facebook spreading and circulating misinformation during the 2016 U.S presidential election.
Similarly, WhatsApp has been scrutinized for the propagation of fake news, as seen particularly in India.
Messages forwarded through WhatsApp containing details of false child kidnappings lead to widespread violence in India in 2017 and 2018.
Similarly, in the recent election taking place in India, and aggravated tensions between India and Pakistan, many have used WhatsApp as a platform to create and forward propaganda.
Keeping the impact that fake news and false information has on people, WhatsApp has put limits on forwarding messages as well as an authentication tool to check whether something is fake news or not.
Now that you know all about the security threats and risks occupying WhatsApp, you might be wondering whether or not to use the messaging platform.
Well, the answer to that question is yes.
Simply put, there isn’t a single app on the market that provides the features that WhatsApp does, which makes WhatsApp almost integral to the online experience of many.
As for the drawbacks, WhatsApp set a milestone when it incorporated End-to-End encryption in the platform.
We can only hope that the company continues to improve in the future and works on the security and privacy loopholes present in the popular messaging service.
Until then, it is our responsibility as users to be cautious and aware of the threats present, as well as their solutions.