In the wake of the numerous privacy and data breach issues that have upended the tech world, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is reportedly working on introducing fingerprint authentication to improve its security.
Introduced first for iOS users in October 2018, Android users too will soon get the fingerprint authentication feature to protect WhatsApp chats from being seen by others who use the same device. The authentication feature is not yet available for iOS users because of development reasons.
Although WhatsApp officials have not officially announced the update yet, news of the new feature has already brought curiosity and relief.
What we know so far
Currently in the beta stage of development, the new feature was first noticed, tested and reported by WhatsApp fan site WABetaInfo, which reported that a fingerprint lock is being developed for the Android 2.19.3 version and is currently disabled by default.
“After working to implement Face ID and Touch ID features on iOS (that aren’t available yet for development reasons), WhatsApp has finally started to work on the Authentication feature on Android, using your Fingerprint!” said the report on Tuesday.
The feature will reportedly be available within the app under a new section in the Settings>Account>Privacy tab. It would be accessible on smartphones with a fingerprint sensor, running on iOS or Android 6.0 Marshmallow and newer operating systems.
How does it work
Once the fingerprint authentication feature is enabled, WhatsApp conversations will be completely protected from other people who use the same device. It will be a blanket feature, that is, particular conversations or contacts wouldn’t be hidden behind a biometric wall.
In case the app fails to recognise the fingerprint, users will also be able to launch the app using phone credentials, presumable the phone’s PIN, according to a report by Android Authority.
“The user will need to authenticate his[/her] identity in order to open WhatsApp (from the app icon, from the notification or from external pickers). It will protect the entire app, so it’s not used to lock specific conversations,” the report added. Although many argue that the feature is a bit redundant if your phone already has a lock, many applications have a separate lock for devices that are used by multiple users.
Recent new features
Last year, WhatsApp on iPhones running on iOS 8 or higher reportedly got a similar feature — biometric unlocking via Face ID or Touch ID —, but it wasn’t rolled out because of development reasons. According to reports, the touch/face ID will be accessible from the privacy settings section on iPhones, which will be available once WhatsApp publicly offers the feature.
Users are also eagerly waiting for the app to introduce the dark feature, already popular on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram that reduces the glare from the screen while using these apps in the dark and also helps to conserve phone battery. In December, WhatsApp also announced an imminent upgrade to Audio Picker, that is, its function to send audio files to contacts. This updgrade will reportedly allow you to send 30 audio files, and will support available image and audio preview of the file.
Another feature, Multishare, will enable users to preview a message or media before forwarding to two or more chats. According to India Today, WhatsApp has rolled out the group video call option for a few Android beta users.
WhatsApp continues to lob measures at fake news
In the wake of the fake news menace in India that had resulted in mobs lynching innocent people, global media reports had earlier claimed that the company was struggling to control the fallout. The Indian government had issued an ultimate to the company to take action. On Thursday, WhatsApp disbursed funds worth Rs 120 crore to combat fake news.
Other steps that WhatsApp has taken to tackle the situtation in India include appointing a special grievance officer, organising awareness drives to dissuade people from being swayed by forwarded messages, and introducing features to flag fake news. However, as a result of its strong encryption policies meant to protect users’ privacy, the company has failed to tracing incendiary and false messages back to their point of origin. Meanwhile, lynching people based on such forwards acquired the form of a social epidemic, to the point that several states organised “digital armies” to infiltrate WhatsApp group chats and monitor the flow of damaging information.
Miscreants have been using the platform to spread misinformation, hate speech and doctored reports, which resulted in mob violence and vigilantism and over 30 casualties in 2018. A BBC report traced the reasons to an inordinate increase in nationalism and people’s misplaced confidence in being able to distinguish between real and fake news. With 200 million users and access to cheap data, India forms the largest domestic market for WhatsApp.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.