At the beginning of this year, WhatsApp introduced several privacy controls that, among others, allow users to disable the “last seen” timestamp. The main problem with this solution, however, is that the actual online status is not affected by that setting. Moreover, the recently announced plans to offer end-to-end-encryption are worthy of praise, however, they obviously are not intended to address any presence based privacy issues.

This is probably why, over the past few years, manual methods have emerged that require users to disable all Internet connectivity (by switching their phones into airplane mode) before WhatsApp is started. There are even Android apps that exist to automate the process of temporarily disabling Internet connectivity. Other solutions propose installing unofficial remakes of the official WhatsApp app. This is generally not a good idea, for obvious reasons: the providers of these apps may not be trustworthy. In fact, all of these approaches seem impractical due to their immense overhead, but they clearly express the need and desire of users for more privacy.

The only real solution in such cases would be for messaging providers (i.e. WhatsApp, Telegram) to extend their existing built-in privacy controls to let users choose whether or not to disclose their presence status. Following the give-and-take principle, users who decide to hide their online status would, in turn, no longer be able to monitor other users’ presences. WhatsApp successfully demonstrated how this is done by introducing the option of disabling the “last seen” timestamp. We recommend simply continuing this strategy of empowering privacy-conscious users.