The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WhatsApp adds a highly requested feature: Messaging from multiple devices

But it doesn’t address long-standing privacy concerns

(Patrick Sison/AP)

For many of the 2 billion people who send WhatsApp messages to friends, family and co-workers, their smartphones are where the experience begins and ends.

Now, that’s about to change with a feature that WhatsApp has started testing with select users.

The Facebook-owned messaging service will let users access their contacts, conversations and message histories across multiple PCs and smart displays, even when their phones are off or disconnected from mobile networks.

WhatsApp has started rolling out its multi-device feature to a small number of users to iron out the kinks for now. If you’ve been clamoring for something like this, you can learn more about how the beta test works on the company’s Help Center page.

Before you do that, though, let’s take a moment to break down how the new feature works, what changes you might experience and whether it poses any potential risks to your privacy.

WhatsApp faces E.U. consumer complaint over privacy update

How does this multi-device feature work?

Before the change, you could log into your WhatsApp account from a computer through your Web browser of choice. The catch? You can be logged into the service from only one non-phone device at a time. Even worse, that Web app requires your smartphone to have an active connection to WhatsApp’s servers at the same time, which means the moment your smartphone runs out of battery is the moment WhatsApp on your computer stops working.

WhatsApp’s new multi-device feature will let you access your contacts and chat history from up to four additional devices — which can include PCs, Macs and Facebook’s Portal smart displays — in addition to your smartphone. And because WhatsApp’s new approach involves creating a “map” of devices connected to your account, giving each a secure identifier, you can keep chatting on your PC well after your smartphone goes dark.

Unfortunately, there’s still no official way to access your contacts and message history from a separate phone (say, one your workplace gave you), though the company says it’s looking at ways of expanding WhatsApp access to even more of your gadgets.

“We’d love to support tablets and other devices soon,” WhatsApp product manager Alfonso Gómez-Jordana said.

Hopefully the company figures out its tablets plan soon — for now, the only way to access the service on iPads and Android tablets is through a slew of sketchy third-party apps.

Is it secure?

Technically, yes.

All of WhatsApp’s usual security and privacy measures remain in place. Consider your conversations: The company encrypts them end-to-end by default, which means the contents of those messages are scrambled and unintelligible to anyone apart from you and the intended recipients. Thankfully, that remains true when you’re taking part in those conversations from multiple devices.

Of course, there are some new security features at play here, many of which work entirely behind the scenes. Unlike the old days of using WhatsApp on the Web, for instance, the devices you connect to your account will get their own set of unique encryption keys. Even if a hacker manages to compromise one device’s set of keys, they can’t be used to decrypt messages sent to someone else — or to another one of your devices — because WhatsApp encrypts each outgoing message specifically for each gadget. (If you’re in the mood for even more technical rigor, the company has a white paper outlining all the juicy details.)

With all of that said, you’ll still have to remain vigilant if you decide to use WhatsApp on multiple devices. It’s always a good idea to double-check which devices are already connected to your WhatsApp account in the app’s settings because you have the power to remotely log out of any you don’t recognize. WhatsApp also has a feature you can enable that requires a face or fingerprint scan before you can access the app — if you already have that enabled, you’ll be asked to authenticate yourself again before you get to connect another device to your account.

And finally, because more screens means more visibility, do yourself a favor and make sure the gadgets you’re connecting to the service all have secure PINs or passwords of their own.

Why WhatsApp’s new privacy rules are sparking alarm

Should I bother?

Well, it depends. WhatsApp says users have been asking for a more elegant way to use one account with multiple devices for years, and the approach the company came up with is a big improvement over what users were already accustomed to. It’s also worth noting this is one of a handful of new features WhatsApp has begun testing to keep its service competitive with rivals like Telegram, Snapchat and Signal.

So, yes, WhatsApp could become much more convenient in the coming months. But if you gave up on the service out of principle because of privacy concerns — as some users did after the service announced its updated privacy policy — I’m not sure this will be enough to change your mind.

Even though the contents of your messages remain encrypted and inaccessible by anyone at WhatsApp, the company still has access to information like your phone number, IP address and “information on how you interact with others” and can share that data with other companies Facebook owns.

After WhatsApp made that sharing relationship clear earlier this year, millions of people reportedly installed competing messaging apps to escape Facebook’s reach. (For what it’s worth, WhatsApp says its pool of users has “continued to grow throughout the year.”)

WhatsApp also routinely complies with governments and law enforcement agencies that request certain kinds of user and conversation data, and we’ve seen how problematic that can be in hot spots of unrest like Hong Kong.

If WhatsApp’s relationship with its parent company or the governments of the world gives you pause, it doesn’t matter how much more convenient the service gets — go with your gut and steer clear.