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(Credit: Iaremenko Sergii/Shutterstock)

While SMS and Apple Messages dominate texting in the US, WhatsApp is quite popular overseas, having hit a milestone of 1.5 billion monthly active users about one year ago. The Facebook-owned messaging app is free, cross-platform, and encrypted, which are all compelling reasons to use, and now WhatsApp-focused blog WABetaInfo reports that the company is adding features to help users secure the app on their devices.

True to its name, WABetaInfo spotted a new beta version of WhatsApp sporting these features, though the blog cautions that the fingerprint setting is not yet set up to work, even though the toggle may appear in the app's privacy settings.

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It should also be noted that WhatsApp (download for Android or iOS) doesn't obtain your actual fingerprint, either. Instead, your phone uses your print as a source of data for creating a different kind of password, in a way where this data cannot be reconstructed by someone else to create a print.

However, while using a fingerprint sensor to lock and unlock your phone is more convenient than using a PIN or password, it does not benefit from the same legal protections, at least in the United States.

In the US, law enforcement may be able to compel you to unlock via a fingerprint, because your body is not a "place of knowledge." Your mind is such a place, however, in which case the police would at least need to obtain a warrant to search, and you would be able to plead the Fifth to avoid self-incrimination. A recent California court ruling may extend protections to fingerprints (and faces, for that matter), but this case is likely to go to the Supreme Court, and the specifics of the court's decision won't apply in all situations.

Because of this legal distinction between your finger and your brain, using a fingerprint sensor to protect your personal data will not grant you the same level of privacy. So if you're using WhatsApp to conduct confidential business, you're on better legal footing if you avoid using biometric security.

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Unfortunately, WhatsApp does not yet have a built-in method for using a PIN or password to protect access to the app, but Android users can download third-party tools that will let them do this for any app on their device. Popular options include Norton App Lock, KeepSafe App Lock and ESET Mobile Security.

iPhone and iPad users don't get apps like these, because they require access to parts of the operating system that Apple fences off for security reasons. The only workaround is to "jailbreak" your phone, but this may void the warranty, and Apple's iOS updates regularly patch the holes that allow various forms of jailbreaking, which can lead you into an endless cat-and-mouse game.

If Android users want to check out beta versions of WhatsApp, they can enroll in the official beta program on the Google Play Store at any time.

Takeaways

  • A beta test version of WhatsApp for Android has added a toggle for an app lock that uses your device's fingerprint sensor to verify the user's identity.
  • However, the actual function hasn't been enabled quite yet, and privacy tied to biometric security is currently in a legal gray area.
  • Instead, you may want to consider using a third-party Android app to lock your other apps with PIN codes and passwords, since that type of security is afforded standard privacy protections under the law.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.