By Yvonne Ng and Gabi Ivens

Published on: 18 December 2018

The messaging platform WhatsApp has 1.5 billion users worldwide and is increasingly being used as a tool to organize, mobilize, as well as to share important human rights content.

This tutorial, put together by WITNESS, walks you through how to download and export your chat messages, videos, photos, and other media from WhatsApp along with basic metadata. Since WhatsApp is a closed platform, we have to use its own built-in tools to access, download, and export the content.

Exporting content is different from backing up your WhatsApp. Backups are designed for restoring your WhatsApp account, for example if you are changing phones, and are stored in an encrypted WhatsApp database format that cannot be opened or read outside of WhatsApp. Instead, this tutorial walks you through exporting content (e.g. .txt  and .mp4 files) for access and use beyond WhatsApp. This exported content cannot be restored to your WhatsApp account like a backup can, but is useful if you want to save important content outside of WhatsApp. See our tutorial on backing up on WhatsApp.

Why would you want to export content off WhatsApp?

  • To make use of important evidence and information beyond WhatsApp

Important evidence and information is being shared on WhatsApp, from videos of human rights abuses to images created to misinform. This information can be used outside of WhatsApp for research, journalistic purposes, fact-checking, mobilization, or in courts of law. For example, you can export a video from WhatsApp to use it in a report, share it with non-WhatsApp users, analyse it for veracity, or edit it into your own video.

  • To preserve evidence and information outside of a proprietary system

Exporting information from a closed system like WhatsApp allows you to have control over its preservation. Even if WhatsApp disappears, you will still have your information. You can decide how to organize it, where it is stored, how many copies you have, who has access, and how you want to preserve it in the long-term. A good organization and storage plan can enable you to reliably locate and retrieve your content whenever you need it.

  • In case your phone gets lost, stolen or broken

WhatsApp messages and media are stored on your phone, not on WhatsApp’s servers. WhatsApp deletes messages from their servers either after they are delivered or after 30 days. But phones can get lost, stolen, or destroyed. Besides cloud backup, which you may want to avoid for security reasons (explained below), exporting your WhatsApp content is one way to save important media and information from your phone.

  • Authors can delete important information using the Delete for Everyone feature

With WhatsApp’s new Delete for Everyone feature, a person who writes a message can delete it from WhatsApp for all recipients within an hour of sending it. Exporting the message is a way to save a record of a message before it disappears.

  • As an alternative to WhatsApp’s cloud backup options

WhatsApp provides built-in options to backup to Google Drive (Android) or iCloud (iPhone). These backups are encrypted by Google and Apple’s server side encryption, and additionally encrypted by WhatsApp in the case of iCloud, but they aren’t protected by WhatsApp´s end-to-end encryption. End-to-end encryption means that only you and the person you are communicating with can have access to your messages ensuring that nobody inbetween or the service provider themselves can have access to them.

Google has the capability to decrypt your backups on their end, and provide them to law enforcement, and the additional encryption provided to iCloud users can be decrypted using a SIM card with your phone number- and potentially by WhatsApp. Google Drive backups will auto-delete if they aren’t updated in more than one year. To avoid using these cloud services, Android users can opt to use local (encrypted) backup, while iPhone users can use iTunes (with encrypted option) to back up their entire phone to their computer, outside of WhatsApp. Exporting is another alternative to backing up to save important messages and media, although you cannot restore exported content to a WhatsApp account as you would a backup.

Consent and permission 

When exporting videos, images, voice notes and chats from WhatsApp that are sent to you privately or in a group, it is important to consider the permission you have or don’t have from those posting the content. WITNESS has put together a tipsheet on informed consent that outlines its four main elements: disclosure, voluntariness, comprehension, and competence.

Consider asking the group about the norms around content when you join. There may be an implicit understanding that content from the group may be made public, or group members may consider their content private.

You could also consider asking the individuals or the group who shared the content for their permission to safely export it, and inform them where you will be storing it and who will have access to it. This also lets them know where and how they can retrieve a copy of the content if they ever delete or lose their own copies.   

There are situations, however, where asking for consent could put you or those you are asking in difficult or dangerous positions; for instance, if  a phone is confiscated and messages indicating the existence of valuable information stored elsewhere are found. It is important to assess the specific context and threat models of those who you are receiving the information from.

As with many questions of permission and consent, they are context specific. In situations of conflict, for example, where there is a need to preserve content quickly that may be soon deleted it might be appropriate to preserve the content first, keep it in a safe and restricted place, and then address the permissions at a later stage.

 

How to save content from WhatsApp

Click on the links below to be taken to the section relevant to you and your operating system.

 

 

I am using the Android operating system on my phone

Do you want to save individual videos or photos, or do you want to save your entire chat history? This tutorial walks you through both! Skip down if you want to save your entire chat history.

Tip: If saving a video or photo for evidentiary purposes, you may want to save the entire chat history to provide context of where, when, and by whom the video or photo was shared.

I want to save individual videos or photos

Saving individual videos or photos off of WhatsApp is a two-step process. First, you need to download the media from WhatsApp’s servers to WhatsApp on your phone. Then, you need to export the media from your WhatsApp to another location (like to your phone gallery or to your computer).

  1. Download from WhatsApp servers

You can download media selectively by simply selecting it within WhatsApp.

You can also set WhatsApp up to auto-download using mobile data, using Wi-Fi, when roaming, or not at all; you can also select what kind of messages you want to auto-download (in WhatsApp Settings > Data and Storage Usage).  Auto-download will save incoming media to your Android and keep it available within the app. By default, photos are set to auto-download unless you turn it off.

Tip: Once you download a message or media to your phone, it is no longer protected by WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.

 

  1. Export from your WhatsApp

On Android, WhatsApp will automatically export your downloaded media to your Gallery, unless you create a .nomedia file in your WhatsApp images folder.  

To export an individual piece of media elsewhere, like to your computer, select  the media within the chat to view and download it, then select the Menu button and select “Share.” Select the export option that is convenient for you (options will depend on your device/services).

 Exporting from WhatsApp

Unlike iPhones, Androids also allow users to access the stored WhatsApp media files directly using a file manager app. Your device may have a built-in file manager (depends on manufacturer) or you can install one from the Play Store. If installing from the PlayStore, pay attention to who created the app and what kind of information they collect.

In the file manager, navigate to WhatsApp > Media > WhatsApp Video (path may differ slightly depending on device/file manager). In the Menu, tap “Share” and select the file(s) you want to export (this process may differ slightly depending on the file manager).

And that’s it! Now you should now have safely exported individual photos and videos. Go to the end of this tutorial to read about how to further preserve these files securely.

I want to save my entire chat history

The easiest way to export an entire chat history, including video and photos, from your Android is to use the built-in “Export Chat” feature.

  1. Open the individual or group chat.

Tap the Menu Button shown in the image below

  1. Tap More, then Export chat.

You can choose whether or not to include video and photos in the export. If you want to include them, choose Include Media.

 

5. Choose an export option that is convenient for you and that lets you export the full chat history and media, if you choose to include media. You might have different options depending on your device/services.

Tip: Taking a screenshot is another super-quick and useful way to make a record outside of WhatsApp of the context in which your media was shared. Keep in mind, however, that you will still need to export the video or photo. Also, the screenshot will capture the current screen rather than the whole chat history, and the text will not be searchable since it is an image.

Workaround for Android’s Export File Size Limitation

In our testing, we encountered problems exporting full chat histories with media files that were larger than 25MB, regardless of export method (on iPhone, there does not seem to be an issue). Instead of the full chat history and media, we could only export the most recent 25MB of chat and media.   

As a workaround to this limitation, you can export the chat history without media, which will result in a smaller file size, and download media files separately via the WhatsApp desktop or web app. When exported without media, the text of the exported chat history will not include the media filenames. However, you can match up media downloaded in the desktop or web app with its place in the chat history by the time and date.

When exported from Android with media included, the video filename is included in the chat history.

When exported from Android without media included, the video filename is not included.

However, media exported using the desktop or web app, or directly from your Android via your file manager can be matched with its chat history by its time and date.

Tip: Media exported from Android to Google Drive will not retain this time and date information in the filename.

Congratulations! Now you should now have safely exported your entire chat history along with videos and images. Go to the end of this tutorial to read about how to further preserve these files securely.

I am using an the iOS operating system on my phone 

Do you want to save individual videos or photos, or do you want to save your entire chat history? This tutorial walks you through both! Skip down if you want to save your entire chat history.

Tip: If saving a video or photo for evidentiary purposes, you may want to save the entire chat history to provide context of where, when, and by whom the video or photo was shared.

I want to save individual videos or photos

Saving individual videos or photos off of WhatsApp is a two-step process. First, you need to download the media from WhatsApp’s servers to your own WhatsApp. Then, you need to export the media from your WhatsApp to another location (like to your phone gallery or to your computer).

  1. Download from WhatsApp servers

You can download media selectively by simply selecting it within WhatsApp, or you can set WhatsApp up to auto-download using WiFi, or Wifi and Cellular data (in WhatsApp Settings > Data and Storage Usage), which will automatically save all incoming photos, audio, videos, and/or documents to your iPhone and keep it available within the app.

    

  1. Export from your WhatsApp

You can then either export WhatsApp media to your iPhone camera roll or elsewhere.

I want to export my WhatsApp media to my iPhone camera roll

  1. To add individual WhatsApp media to your iPhone camera roll, first give WhatsApp Read and Write permission in your iPhone Settings > WhatsApp > Photos.

Security tip: Giving apps read and write permissions could potentially allow developers at WhatsApp access to your entire camera roll. Consider changing this setting back to ‘Never’ after you have exported your media. It is not entirely clear what happens when you revoke access to something you previously gave permission to however for future uses the app should not have access to your camera roll.

   

  1. Then play the video in WhatsApp, and tap the  button and tap “Save”.

 

I want to export my WhatsApp media to my computer or elsewhere

  1. To export individual WhatsApp video to your computer or elsewhere, tap “Share” and select your sharing option.

And that’s it! Now you should now have safely exported individual photos and videos. Go to the end of this tutorial to read about how to further preserve these files securely.

 

I want to save my entire chat history

The easiest way to export video and accompanying chat history from your iPhone is to use WhatsApp “Export Chat” feature.

  1. Open the individual or group chat.
  2. Tap on the chat name/heading to get the Contact Info page for the chat.

On the Contact Info page, tap Export Chat, and choose whether to include video or media or not in the export. If you want to include Media, choose Attach Media.

  

4.  Choose the most convenient export method that lets you export the full chat history and media, if you are attaching media.

5. WhatsApp exports a ZIP file containing a .txt document, and if you choose to attach media, the media files.  Expand the ZIP file to see the contents:

In the “_chat.txt” you will see your chats and references to the media files:

Tip: Taking a screenshot is another super-quick and useful way to make a record outside of WhatsApp of the context in which your media was shared. Keep in mind, however, that you will still need to export the video or photo. Also, the screenshot will capture the current screen rather than the whole chat history, and the text will not be searchable since it is an image.

Congratulations! Now you should now have safely exported your entire chat history along with videos and images. Go to the end of this tutorial to read about how to further preserve these files securely. For those interested in more information concerning storage options for your exports download this tipsheet.

 

I want to use the desktop/web app 

WhatsApp’s desktop app and WhatsApp Web allow you to run WhatsApp natively on your computer or in your browser. To do this, you need to pair/sync the desktop or web app with the app on your phone. The desktop and web apps do not allow you to download and export chat messages and media files en masse in the same way the mobile app does; however you can download and export individual video and images. This can be helpful when you have large video files that you want to avoid transferring through your mobile device.  

While the filenaming differs, media files are exactly the same whether they are exported from the mobile app or the desktop/web apps.

  1. In the desktop or web app, click on the “down arrow” button on the top-right corner of the photo or video. Select “Download.” If the arrow is not immediately visible, hover your mouse on the image or video and a white arrow will appear on the top right corner.

2. Save the photo or video to your computer. The filename will indicate the date and time that the media was shared on WhatsApp.

3. For a quick way of saving the relevant chat messages that accompany the media, you can screenshot the chat messages and save them in the same folder as your video or image. This is useful if you use WhatsApp only on your computer rather than your phone, as there is no “export chat” feature on the desktop or web app.  

Tip: Taking a screenshot is another super-quick and useful way to make a record outside of WhatsApp of the context in which your media was shared. Keep in mind, however, that you will still need to export the video or photo. Also, the screenshot will capture the current screen rather than the whole chat history, and the text will not be searchable since it is an image.

Now you should have now have downloaded files directly onto your computer. So, what’s next? Skip down to the section on ‘Further Preservation’.

I want to delete content from my device after exporting 

I want to delete a message, photo or video from my device.

Once you have exported WhatsApp content you can delete the content both from your device and from your WhatsApp chat history, while still retaining an offline copy. By right clicking (for Web Whatsapp users) or selecting the message on your phone, then selecting  ‘delete’ (if you don’t see this in your list of initial options press ‘more’ to find the ‘delete’ option ), you will then be given the option to select ‘delete for me.’ This will delete the message from your chat history on your phone. It will not delete the message from other people’s phones, from your backups, or from their backups.  

On Android 

  

On iPhone 

 

  

 

I want to delete my message on everyone’s devices

In the first hour after posting a message, you have the option to  delete your message for all recipients using the “Delete for Everyone” feature. Note that a recipient may export, screenshot, or back up your message before you delete it, which is out of your control.  

On Android 

   

On iPhone 

        

On Desktop or Web:

Right click on the web desktop app and select the option ‘delete for everyone’

Once selected then you will see this message confirming you have deleted this message.

One last step is to delete the confirmation message from your phone. This is in case you are stopped and your phone is searched as to avoid answering questions as to what you deleted.

 

 

I want to preserve my exported content 

Congratulations, you have successfully downloaded, exported, or in some instances deleted, your WhatsApp content! The next step is to safely preserve your exported content to ensure it is not altered, corrupted, misplaced, or deleted, and to make sure your information is secure.

We will cover detailed steps to preservation in a subsequent tutorial. For now, the main things you will have to do are:

  • Organize your files by putting each chat history text file and associated media in a folder, and give the folder a straightforward and uniquely identifying name. For more on this see the section on Organizing from our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, and the Preserve section of our Activists’ Guide to Video Databases.

  • Consider calculating and documenting hashes for the files so that you can test file fixity later on, and to be able to show that you haven’t altered the files from the time you made the hashes. For more on this see this section on Keeping Files Intact (and proving it) from our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video.

  • Store your files in a safe location, and backup to a separate safe location. Consider using encryption for security. For more on this see this section on Storage Strategies from our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, and the Preserve section of our Activists’ Guide to Video Databases.

If you need to keep track of a large amount of media, or a large number of chat histories, consider inventorying or cataloging your files in a spreadsheet or database so you can easily find and retrieve them later on. For more on this see this section on Cataloging from our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, and the Metadata section of our Activists’ Guide to Video Databases.

  • Periodically check on the health of your files and your storage devices. If you previously hashed your files, run your hashes to check that your files haven’t changed. Replace storage devices before they start to malfunction. For more on this see this section on Storage Strategies from our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video.

For more information on these topics and more, check out our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video and our Activists’ Guide to Creating Video Databases!

 

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Yvonne Ng is an audiovisual archivist and has been part of the WITNESS team since 2009. In collaboration with WITNESS regional leads, she trains and supports partners on collecting, managing, and preserving video documentation for human rights advocacy and evidence. She develops training resources related to archiving and preservation, such as the groundbreaking Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video. Yvonne also manages WITNESS’s own archive of human rights video.

Gabi Ivens is a Mozilla Fellow hosted at WITNESS. She is currently working on producing a number of tutorials to preserve content of human rights violations, researching technical solutions for indicating authenticity and provenance of visual content, and strategies concerning reducing stress and trauma when watching graphic or distressing videos. 

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