Why you need to use disappearing messages on WhatsApp and Signal

Disappearing messages are not new, but they are quickly becoming a popular option. Secure messaging app Signal has been offering the feature since 2016, and WhatsApp launched disappearing messages in November last year. But why should you use them?

Growth in the use of vanishing messages, which remove what you’ve sent after a set period of time, is being driven by a number of factors. On a basic level, WhatsApp and Signal chats are amassing huge amounts of data, putting pressure on smartphone storage space. Disappearing messages can get rid of this clutter, making them useful for anyone wishing to reduce their digital footprint.

And that’s without considering the privacy implications. While Signal and WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption stops anyone intercepting your messages from accessing their content, it can’t protect your message data if your device or the person you are talking to is compromised.

“Even if data is encrypted and protected by a code, keeping messaging information available on your smartphone poses far more of a threat than not having it anywhere at all,” says Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET. “Disappearing messages add a layer of security and assurance that the data is safe, because it no longer exists.”

How disappearing messages work

While vanishing messages are available on both WhatsApp and Signal, there are differences between the two, with the latter offering richer features and additional controls.

Signal users can set messages to disappear after any length of time between one second to four weeks – the timer starts after a message is read. You can also adjust the time or turn the feature off if you change your mind.

Each vanishing message will feature a timer countdown icon visible at the bottom of the message bubble. Signal’s disappearing messages can be turned on by anyone in the chat and are deleted from all locations when the timer reaches an end.

Signal also has a separate feature that allows you to send vanishing photos and videos. Simply tap on the + sign at the bottom left of the screen and select the tiny circular icon before sending the message.

WhatsApp’s vanishing messages are a new feature, so the customisation options are currently very limited. Disappearing messages vanish after seven days for all users and this cannot be adjusted. Although in the future it is likely that WhatsApp will add more controls to the vanishing messages.

In a WhatsApp one-to-one chat, either person can turn vanishing messages on. Anyone can enable disappearing messages in a group, unless the admin changes the settings to allow only admins to turn the feature on and off. Unlike Signal, the current seven day period on WhatsApp doesn’t need a message to be read. Messages sent will disappear even if they haven’t been opened or read.

When to use disappearing messages

Disappearing messages are an ideal tool for people who are concerned their chats could be checked – especially if there is anything about themselves they want to keep private, says Scott Sammons, information and data specialist Lighthouse IG. “This could apply to a domestic abuse setting or someone, for example, hiding the fact they are LGBTQ.”

Of course, disappearing messages are not going to work for every situation, especially in circumstances where a record needs to be kept. For instance, this may apply if you’re using Signal or WhatsApp for work purposes. “Disappearing messages will mean losing records that should be kept, such as conversations around deals, contracts or clients,” Sammons says.

But at the same time, Randall Sarafa, chief product officer at Signal, highlights a recently-added feature in the app that allows you to keep messages for four weeks. “This is great for information you need to retain for a month, such as work messages or conversations with a doctor.” Signal is also about to launch a feature to allow you to specify a default vanishing message timer for all new chats, Sarafa says.