By Yvonne Ng and Gabi Ivens

Published on: 25 January 2019

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, helps you decide whether you should use WhatsApp’s built-in backup options, and if so, how to back up your WhatsApp.

Backing up your WhatsApp is different from exporting content from your WhatsApp. Backups are designed for restoring your WhatsApp account, for example if you are changing phones. Backups are stored in an encrypted WhatsApp database format that cannot be opened or read outside of WhatsApp. If you are interested in learning how to export content (e.g. .txt  and .mp4 files) for access and use beyond WhatsApp then go on this tutorial.  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.

Why would you want to back up WhatsApp? 

  • In case you need to delete WhatsApp from your phone, and reinstall it later.

In cases where your phone might be searched or you are concerned about your physical and digital security, you might want to uninstall WhatsApp on your phone. By backing up your WhatsApp on your phone or on the cloud before you uninstall, you can reinstall and restore your content from this backup later.

  • In case your phone gets lost, stolen, broken or you need to replace it.  

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, whichever is sooner). But phones can get lost, stolen, or destroyed.  Backing up your WhatsApp to your computer or to the cloud is the only way to ensure you can restore your WhatsApp if something happens to your device.

  • In case you want to revert to a backed up copy.

There may be instances where you want to revert your WhatsApp to a backed up copy; for example, if you accidentally delete some important content. In most cases, such as when using Google Drive or iCloud backup, you can only revert to the most recent backup. However, Android devices store the last 7 days of backup, and it is possible for Android users to restore from an older local backup. iPhone users can revert to older (non-most-recent) backups only through iTunes backups of their entire device. It is important to note that when you restore from a backup, you will lose all the new content created after the backup date.

 

Why would you not want to back up WhatsApp?

  • WhatsApp backups are not as secure as WhatsApp chats.

WhatsApp provides built-in options to back up locally (Android) and to Google Drive (Android) or iCloud (iPhone). Android users can back up all of their WhatsApp data, with no file size restrictions, for free on Google Drive. These backups are encrypted by WhatsApp and, if uploaded, also by Google or Apple’s server side encryption, but they aren’t protected by WhatsApp´s end-to-end encryption. End-to-end encryption refers to encryption where only the sender and the recipient can decrypt the message, but not anyone in between, including the service provider. Once you, the recipient, decrypt (i.e. receive and read) the message, the WhatsApp end-to-end encryption chain ends.

When you make a backup, WhatsApp encrypts it with a key generated with your phone number. When the backup is uploaded to Google Drive or iCloud, Google or Apple also encrypt it with their own server-side encryption. This means that they, or anyone with your Google Account or iCloud authorization, have the capability to decrypt the server-side encryption on your backup, and, say, provide the backup to law enforcement. Meanwhile, the key for decrypting the WhatsApp encryption is stored on your phone, or can be regenerated by anyone using a SIM card with your phone number, as it was designed to enable users to easily restore backups onto new phones.

It is also important to note that only text conversations, not media, are encrypted by the WhatsApp backup encryption. Media attachments are not encrypted by WhatsApp on your phone, nor when uploaded to Google Drive and iCloud.  

  • Google and Apple may provide access to backups to law enforcement.

When you back up content to the cloud, you lose control of it, and you are at the hands of the companies and their business decisions. Apple has provided iCloud data to law enforcement, and Google will respond to legal requests for data as well. By backing up via the cloud, you lose protection against court orders and subpoenas to gain access to WhatsApp data on third-party servers. It is possible that you would never even hear about it or be alerted to it, depending on the kind of order used.

As alternatives to using these cloud services, Android users can opt to only use local (encrypted) backup, while iPhone users can use iTunes (with encrypted option) to back up their entire phone to their computer. Exporting your WhatsApp content 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. Note that all of these options have their own security risks, for instance if your device is lost, stolen, or confiscated or if your cloud services or device is hacked or breached. WITNESS will shortly be releasing a tutorial on security and privacy while using WhatsApp.

  • Cloud backup makes content more vulnerable to breaches and hacks

Storing data on the cloud can be infamously insecure as cloud storage can introduce many vulnerabilities, and users do not take the measures needed to secure their information. Individual accounts can be hacked or breached through weak passwords, poor password management, and phishing (combined with not using 2-factor authentication, which helps protect users). Cloud storage providers can also have poor security practices, such as weak protection of their databases, leaving them and their users vulnerable to breaches, hacks and leaks.

How to back up your WhatsApp  

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

 

I want to back up WhatsApp on my Android operating system 

 

I want to do a local backup

You do not need to do anything. WhatsApp automatically creates local backups to your device every day at 2:00am. This feature cannot be turned off. WhatsApp stores the last 7 days of backups on your device. If you want to backup manually at some point between the 24 hour back up cycle then go to WhatsApp > Menu > Settings > Chat > Chat backup > Back Up.

Manual backup button in WhatsApp

Local backups are stored as encrypted database files in your device storage under WhatsApp > Databases. They are decrypted by WhatsApp using a key stored on your phone (which is inaccessible unless you have root access to your phone).

A view of the Databases folder in Android’s WhatsApp storage.

 I want to restore from a local backup

I want to restore from the most recent backup on my phone:

This process is mostly automated. When you reinstall WhatsApp, you will be prompted to restore after you verify your phone number. WhatsApp will choose the most recent backup by default. WhatsApp will choose the local backup if it is the most recent or if there is no Google Drive backup. To force WhatsApp to choose the local backup, log out of your Google Account before reinstalling WhatsApp.

I want to restore from an older local backup on my phone:

In order to restore from an older local backup, you will need:

  • A file manager app for accessing stored files on your phone. 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.

1. WhatsApp stores the last 7 days of backups on Android devices. To restore a backup from the last 7 days that is not the most recent backup, use a file manager app to navigate to your device or SD card storage > WhatsApp > Databases:

(The appearance will depend on the file manager app you use)

2. Select the less recent backup that you want to restore from, then select “Rename” (the exact steps will vary depending on the file manager app):

3. Rename the older backup file by removing the date from the filename, e.g.  from msgstore-2019-01-15.db.crypt12 to msgstore.db.crypt12 (Do not change any other part of the filename). You will also have to rename the most recent backup so that they do not have the same name.     

4. Re-install WhatsApp on your device, and after verifying your phone number, follow the prompts to restore from backup during the set up. Sign out of your Google Account before reinstalling if you want to prevent WhatsApp from looking for a Google Drive backup:

I want to restore a local backup to a different phone

1. To restore a local backup stored on one phone to a different phone (with the same phone number), you need to transfer the backup files from the old phone to the new phone. You can do this with an SD card if you use an external SD card, or you can use a file manager app or your computer to copy/share the backup file.                                                                                                                                                                               

2. Install WhatsApp on the new phone, but don’t open it or set it up yet! Instead, navigate to the newly added WhatsApp/Databases folder on the new phone, and copy the backup from the old phone into this folder. You do not need to transfer the decryption key from the old phone, as WhatsApp will generate a new one using your matching phone number.

3. Now you can open and set up WhatsApp on the new phone. After verifying your phone number, follow the prompts to restore from the backup file.

I want to delete a local backup

In order to delete a local backup, you will need:

  • A file manager app for accessing stored files on your phone. 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
  1. Use your file manager app to navigate to WhatApp/Databases on your device storage or SD card.
  2. Delete individual backup files, or the entire Databases folder. This will not affect the primary copy of your chats in your WhatsApp.  

Security tip: Some Android devices may keep deleted files until they are re-written with new data needing the storage space and could be restored through a tool or application. To permanently delete this backup, consider downloading an app that rewrites random data over your deleted files such as Secure Eraser.

 I want to do cloud backup to Google Drive

In order to back up to Google Drive, you will need:

  • A Google Account activated on your phone and Google Play services installed.
  • Sufficient free storage space on your phone to create the backup that will be subsequently uploaded to Google Drive.

Note: Your WhatsApp backup is stored as “hidden app data” on Google Drive, which is only accessible to WhatsApp, and not to you directly or any other app. You can see the size of your backup by going to Google Drive on your computer, selecting the Gear icon > Settings > Manage Apps > WhatsApp. Since November 2018, it does not count towards your Google Drive storage quota.

To backup WhatsApp on your Android:

1. In WhatsApp, select Menu > Settings > Chat > Chat Backup.

2. Make sure your Google Account is connected. Select “Back up” to start a backup immediately, or “Back up to Google Drive” to set up a regularly scheduled backup.

I want to restore from a Google Drive backup

In order to restore from a Google Drive backup, you must have:

  • The same phone number that was used to create the backup. If you want to restore to a new phone number, add the new phone number to the Change Number settings on the old phone.
  • The same Google Account that was used to create the backup.

1. Before installing (or re-installing) WhatsApp, make sure your Google Account has been added on your new phone. If not, add it by going to Settings > Accounts > Add account > Google > Sign in with your Google account information.

2. Install WhatsApp. Follow the instructions to add and verify your phone number, and the prompts to restore from Google Drive. If you are restoring to same phone and/or had not previously backed up to Google Drive, WhatsApp will automatically restore from a local backup instead.

 

I want to delete a Google Drive backup

  1. In Google Drive on your computer, go to Gear Icon > Settings > Manage Apps > WhatsApp. Wait until “Hidden app data” and file size appears, which may take a few minutes:

 

       2. Select “Options,” then “Delete hidden app data”:

I want to back up WhatsApp on my iOS operating system 

 

 I want to do an iCloud backup

In order to back up to iCloud, you will need:

  • An Apple ID for accessing iCloud
  • Sufficient free storage space on your iPhone and in your iCloud for storing the backup.

 

1. If you aren’t already signed in, sign in to your iCloud account with your Apple ID. In your phone Settings > [your name] > iCloud, make sure your iCloud Drive is turned on.

2. In WhatsApp, go to Settings > Chats > Chat Back Up, and select “Back Up Now” Switch “Include Videos” on if you want to back up videos shared on WhatsApp:

   

3. To set up regular daily, weekly, or monthly backup schedule, use the “Auto Backup” feature:

I want to restore from an iCloud backup

1. In WhatsApp, first see if an iCloud backup exists by checking Settings > Chats > Chat Back Up for a record of the last backup:

2. Delete and re-install WhatsApp. Follow the instructions to add and verify your phone number, and then follow the prompts to restore from iCloud:

 I want to delete an iCloud backup

1. In your iPhone Settings, go to your Apple ID (name) > iCloud > Manage Storage > WhatsApp Messenger:

    

2. Select “Delete Data.” You will see a warning that “This will delete all data for this app stored on this iPhone and iCloud.” This warning is somewhat confusing, as the primary copy of your WhatsApp data on your iPhone will not be deleted, just the backup.

After deleting the iCloud backup, you will still be able to access your WhatsApp chats on your phone. In Settings > Chats > Chat Backup, you will see that there is no current backup:

 I want to do an iTunes backup to my computer

WhatsApp does not provide a built-in way for iPhone users to do a local backup of their WhatsApp. However, iPhone users can back up their entire device, which includes WhatsApp data, to their computers using iTunes.

Note that this method is not supported by WhatsApp and is not guaranteed to restore 100% of your chats and media. There is also no way to selectively restore only the WhatsApp data from the iTunes backup; you must restore your entire device. This means that you will lose any content on your device that was created/added after your last backup.

  1. Connect your phone to your computer. Unlock your phone and allow the computer/iTunes to access it. In iTunes, select the Device Icon:

  1. In iTunes, under “Backups,” select “This Computer.”

3. You can choose to “Encrypt iPhone backup” to protect your data. Encrypted backups include information like passwords and health data from your iPhone that would not be included in unencrypted backups. Note that there is no way to recover an encrypted backup if you lose the password.

  1. Start the backup with “Back Up Now”:

iTunes backups are stored in the (hidden) ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/ folder on your computer. You can also navigate to the backup location in iTunes > Preferences > Devices, right-clicking the selected backup, and selecting “Show in Finder.” However, to ensure that iTunes can restore your backups properly, do not move or alter the backup files.

I want to restore from an iTunes backup

Note that this method is not supported by WhatsApp and is not guaranteed to restore 100% your chats and media. There is also no way to selectively restore only the WhatsApp data from the iTunes backup; you must restore your entire device. This means that you will lose any content on your device that was created/added after your last backup.

  1. Connect your phone to your computer. Unlock your phone and allow the computer/iTunes to access it. You will be prompted to turn off the Find My iPhone feature on your phone. To temporarily turn this off, go to Settings > iCloud > Find my iPhone. Switch off Find my iPhone and enter your Apple ID password. In iTunes, select the Device Icon:

      2. In iTunes, under “Backups,” select “Restore Backup” and select the backup you want to restore from:

3. Turn back on the Find My iPhone feature on your phone. Go to Settings > iCloud > Find my iPhone. Switch back on Find my iPhone and enter your Apple ID password.

 I want to delete an iTunes backup

1. In iTunes, go to iTunes > Preferences > Devices. Right click the backup you want to delete, and select “Delete”:

 

Note that your backup folder is backed up in Time Machine (if this feature is enabled), so there may still be extant copies of your backup after you delete it from your computer.

 

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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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