What is WhatsApp and how does it differ from email or SMS?
WhatsApp is a messaging program that’s been around for a long time by Silicon Valley standards: it was founded in 2009 by two former employees of Yahoo, Brian Acton and Jan Koum.
Like SMS messages, it uses your phone number to identify you, but unlike SMS messages, WhatsApp messages aren’t tied to your mobile phone bill, as it uses wi-fi as well as mobile data to send and receive.
You can send messages to individuals, or you can set up groups. Many people have a group for their family, for example.
Is it true that WhatsApp is more secure than SMS or email?
Yes, it is more secure. WhatsApp messages are secured by end-to-end encryption, which means that only you and the person you’re exchanging messages with can read what you send to each other. They can’t be intercepted while you’re sending messages and there’s no way that WhatsApp, or Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, could read them.
Email by contrast isn’t encrypted, although you can either encrypt emails yourself using the free PGP tool, or by signing up to an email service such as ProtonMail that encrypts by default, but both of those are time-consuming and fiddly. SMS isn’t encrypted either, and can be intercepted (although such attacks are unusual). WhatsApp, and other encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram, are easy to use and handle the encryption for you.
Could I use Facebook Messenger or another app such as Skype or FaceTime instead?
Yes, you could. However, neither Messenger nor Skype messages offer end-to-end encryption unless you turn it on – it’s off by default – and while FaceTime conversations are end-to-end encrypted by default, it’s only available on Apple devices: MacBooks, Mac Minis, iPhones and iPads. You can’t FaceTime someone who uses Android or Windows.
How does it work?
You have to install the app on your smartphone: go to your app store, search for the app, and download it.
It needs your phone number to work, so you can’t also install it on a tablet. There is a web version that you can use in a browser, but you will need your phone to set that up.
How do I get started?
Once you’ve downloaded it, install the app. It will ask for access to your contacts and to send you notifications, and then it will ask for your phone number and then send you a code to your phone number.
Once you’re up and running, it’s just like using Messenger or Skype. If you’ve granted the app access to your contacts you can search in them and either create a new chat or add them to a group. You can also add photos and emojis to chats, and you can use WhatsApp to make voice calls, too.
People can add you to groups and chats, but you’ll always get a notification and you can decline.
Can I back up my WhatsApp chats?
Yes, you can – and if you install it on a new phone, you’ll be able to restore your chat history to the new phone.