How Ephemeral or Self-Destructing Messaging Works

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Self-destructing messaging, otherwise known as 'ephemeral' messaging, is disappearing ink for text and photos. All messages are purposely short-lived--the messaging system automatically erases the content minutes or seconds after the message is consumed. This deletion happens on the receiver's device, the sender's device, and on the system servers. No lasting record of the conversation is kept.

Yes, you can send text messages, photos, videos, and voice messages that automatically destroy themselves within seconds of being received. Ephemeral messaging is basically the modern version of the classic Mission Impossible TV series scene: 'this message will self-destruct in 5 seconds'. Here's how it works and what apps might be for you.


Why Do People Use Self-Destructing Messaging?

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Because users generally have little control over their online content, ephemeral messaging is very attractive as a form of privacy cloaking. While a Facebook feed or Instagram share will live for decades online, it is comforting to know that you can send messages that are actually private to you and the recipient. Snapchat is particularly popular because it supports 'safe sexting': users can send sexual photos and videos to each other without fear that widespread copies will bring them embarrassment in the future.

Tweenagers are the big adopters of self-destructing messaging. They are exploratory and high-tech by nature, and short-lived messages and photos are very enticing to them as a form of both self-expression and personal discovery.

Adults and seniors also use ephemeral messages, sometimes for the same reasons as tweenagers.

Why Would I Want to Use Self-Destructing Messages?

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The biggest reason is personal privacy -- there is no need for the world to receive broadcasted copies of what you share with your friends and loved ones. Ephemeral messaging helps to guard against widespread distribution of your content.

There are many specific legal reasons that adults use ephemeral texting and photo-sharing. For example, you like to purchase illicit substances or contraband like recreational marijuana or anabolic steroids. Using Wickr or Cyber Dust is one way you can stay in contact with your supply source while protecting yourself from prying eyes.

Perhaps you are a battered spouse, and you are trying to leave an abusive relationship. If the abuser is regularly snooping on your cell phone or laptop, then ephemeral messaging will help you communicate with your supporters while reducing the risk that you will be outed by your device.

Maybe you are a whistleblower who wants to report ethical misconduct about your place of employment. Using Wickr and Cyber Dust would be smart ways to coordinate with the news journalists and law enforcement if you fear you that your online habits are being observed.

Perhaps you are part of a secret committee or private association. You want to communicate with each other about sensitive internal matters, like disciplining a misbehaving member or even dealing with a public relations legal crisis. Self-destructing messages will reduce the possibility of having incriminating evidence brought against you and your group while you coordinate with your colleagues.

Messy breakups and divorces are an excellent time to use self-destructing messaging. During this heated and emotionally-charged time, it is very easy to send a harsh text message or hostile voice message that will be used against you later in legal proceedings. If you plan to self-destruct these messages in advance, then the lawyers will not have ammunition to use against you.

Maybe you are a cheating spouse. Self-destructing messages will definitely be to your advantage.

Maybe you are being investigated by law enforcement for white collar crimes or other allegations. Self-destructing your text messages would be an intelligent thing to do to reduce how much incriminating evidence can be stacked against you.

You may have a nosy girlfriend/boyfriend or an over-controlling parent who is regularly snooping on your computer devices. Automatically destroying your text messages could be a smart move on your part.

Finally, and most importantly, you value privacy and feel that even though you have nothing to hide, privacy is something we are all entitled to and you want to exercise that right.

How Does It Work?

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There are multiple technologies that are involved with sending/ciphering/receiving/destroying text messages and multimedia attachments. There is encryption involved to protect eavesdroppers from copying your message while it is in flight from you to the recipient. Strong password walls will regularly ask you to verify your identity before you can view the ephemeral messages. The deletion process can be complex, as it involves erasing every copy on the many machines that your message has passed through, including the host servers. Some ephemeral tools on Android also take the extra step of locking out the receiver from taking screenshots of the message.

Interesting technical note: prior to 2015, Snapchat also had the interesting requirement that the recipient must hold their finger down on the screen while viewing a message. This was to dissuade the use of screenshotting. Snapchat has since removed this feature.

This feature is available with Confide app, which requires you to drag your finger to view each message line by line.

Can I Trust That My Messages Are Destroyed?

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The bad news: Nothing is ever truly perfect. In the case of text messaging and photo attachments, nothing can prevent the recipient from having a camera ready to take an external copy of their screen while viewing your self-destructing message. Furthermore, when the service provider claims that they destroy all copies of your texts, how can you know that with 100% certainty? Perhaps the service provider is compelled by law enforcement to record your particular messages as part of an investigation.

The good news: Ephemeral messaging does get you much more privacy than you would have had without it. The temporary nature of viewing an incoming message really deters the chance that your text sent in anger or photo sent in a lusty moment will embarrass you later. Unless the recipient is motivated to record your messages for wicked reasons, using a self-destructing messaging tool will give you close to 100% privacy.

In a world where privacy can't be guaranteed, it makes good sense to add as many layers of cloaking as you can, and self-destructing messaging does reduce your exposure to embarrassment and incrimination.

What Are the Popular Self-Destruct Messaging Tools I Can Use?

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Snapchat is considered the 'big daddy' of ephemeral messaging. An estimated 150 million users send ephemeral videos and texts through Snapchat every day. Snapchat offers a fun user experience with many slick features for convenience. It has also had its share of controversy over the years, including getting hacked and getting accused of not truly deleting photos from their servers.

Confide is an excellent self-destructing messaging app. It has an interesting feature which really deters screenshots--you must drag your finger to reveal the message line-by-line. While this doesn't prevent a video or screen recording, this feature does really add a nice layer of security against your message getting copied.

Facebook Messenger now offers a new 'Secret Conversations' feature that protects your privacy through special encryption. This is still a new technology for FB, so be cautious if you decide you want to try using this feature for sensitive messaging content.

Wickr is a California service provider that gives users the power to set how long auto-destructing intervals should be.  

Privnote is a completely web-based tool which frees you from having to install and manage an app on your device.

Digify is an attachment eraser for your Gmail. It's not quite as cloaking as Wickr or Snapchat, but it can help when you need to send the occasional sensitive document via email.

Which Is the Best Self-Destruct Messaging App?

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If you want to try ephemeral messaging, definitely try Wickr first. Wickr has earned the trust and respect of millions of users, and it runs an interesting reward program for any hackers who can find vulnerabilities in their system. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also given Wickr an excellent score on their Secure Messaging Scorecard.

Confide is the second messaging app we recommend for overall reliability of privacy, while the other options have all had their issues and are constantly developing.