How Ephemeral (Self-Destructing) Messaging Works

It's what you need when you want your digital content to be seen, then disappear

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Ephemeral messaging, otherwise known as self-destructing messaging, is disappearing ink for your digital communications. All messages, photos, videos, and voice recordings sent through ephemeral messaging apps are purposely short-lived; the app automatically deletes the content minutes or seconds after it's seen by the recipient. This deletion happens on the recipient's device, the sender's device, and the app's servers. No record of the content is kept anywhere. Here's how ephemeral messaging apps work, why you would want to use them, and which ones you might want to try.

No online method of communication can be guaranteed as private. See the final section below for limitations of this technology, and be sure you thoroughly research how apps use and store your information before you put them to use.

Why Do People Use Ephemeral Messaging?

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In an online world that doesn't always prioritize privacy, ephemeral messaging offers a way to communicate without the potential for being observed. While a Facebook feed or Instagram share may live for decades online, it's comforting to know you can send messages that are actually private between you and your recipients.

Tweens are big adopters of self-destructing messaging, which supports their exploratory stage of life, as well as their comfort with new types of technology. For tweens, short-lived messages and photos are enticing as a form of self-expression and personal discovery.

Teens and adults may use ephemeral messages for the same reasons as tweens, but also for reasons described in the next section.

What Are Some Specific Uses for Ephemeral Messaging?

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Ephemeral messaging helps to guard against the widespread distribution of your content. Therefore, it's useful in the following situations.

Some of the behaviors listed below may be illegal or considered unethical. We're not condoning these behaviors by describing how people engaging in them use ephemeral messaging.

Safety

If you're in an abusive relationship or marriage and are trying to leave, you may need to keep information about your intentions from the prying eyes of your abuser. Abusers commonly snoop on their victims' devices and attempt to thwart their efforts to leave. Ephemeral messaging can help you safely communicate with supporters about your plans.

Sensitive Work Matters

As a whistleblower who wants to report misconduct on the part of your employer without being discovered, you could use an ephemeral messaging app to coordinate with news journalists or law enforcement.

Maybe you're on the other side of things and are being investigated by law enforcement for white collar crimes or other allegations. You could use ephemeral messaging to reduce the amount of incriminating evidence that can be stacked against you.

Perhaps you're part of a secret committee or private association and need to communicate with other members about sensitive matters, such as disciplining a misbehaving member or dealing with a public relations crisis. Use of ephemeral messages could reduce the amount of incriminating evidence available to be used against you and your group.

Complicated Relationships

If you're experiencing a heated or emotionally-charged breakup or divorce, you may later regret the harsh or even hostile message you send today, and that information could even be used against you in legal proceedings. In these situations, ephemeral messaging can reduce the potential for legal ammunition against you.

As a married person cheating on your spouse, you may choose to use ephemeral messages to help prevent detection.

Sexting

Disappearing messages, photos, and videos can be useful when you want to exchange intimate content. Snapchat, a popular ephemeral messaging app, is particularly popular because it supports "safe sexting." Users can send sexual photos and videos to each other without fear that they'll be shared widely online.

Illegal Activity

You may choose to use ephemeral messaging if you want to do something illegal, such as purchase illicit substances. Ephemeral messaging apps provide a means for secretly staying in contact with supply sources.

Plain Ol' Privacy

You may have a nosy girlfriend/boyfriend or an over-controlling parent who snoops on your devices. You can use ephemeral messaging to delete your communications before they get a chance to read them.

Finally, and most importantly, you may simply value privacy and feel that even though you have nothing to hide, privacy is something everyone is entitled to, and you want to exercise that right.

How Does Ephemeral Messaging Work?

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Multiple technologies are involved in ephemeral messaging. Encryption protects would-be spies from copying your message while it's being transmitted from your device to your recipient's device. Strong password walls require you to verify your identity before you can view ephemeral messages. The deletion process involves erasing every copy of the content on the many machines it has passed through, including the host servers. Some tools on Android take the extra step of not allowing recipients to take screenshots of the content.

Prior to 2015, Snapchat required recipients to hold a finger down on their screen while viewing a message, to prevent screenshotting. Snapchat has since removed this feature, but it is available in the Confide app, which requires you to drag your finger to view each message line by line.

What Are the Most Popular Ephemeral Messaging Tools?

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Snapchat is considered the "big daddy" of ephemeral messaging. An estimated 3.5 billion "snaps" are sent through Snapchat each day. Snapchat offers a fun user experience with many convenient features.

Confide is an excellent ephemeral messaging app. To prevent screenshotting it requires you to drag your finger to reveal an incoming message line-by-line. While this method doesn't prevent videos or screen recordings, it does add a nice layer of security.

Facebook Messenger now offers a Secret Conversations feature that protects your privacy through special encryption. However, given concerns about how Facebook handles privacy generally, be cautious if you decide to use this feature for transmitting sensitive content.

Wickr is designed to be used by work teams and includes a wide range of robust privacy features.  

Privnote is completely web-based, which frees you from the hassle of installing and managing an app on your device.

Digify is an attachment eraser for Gmail and other applications. Its cloaking qualities aren't as robust as those of Wickr or Snapchat, but it can help when you need to send an occasional sensitive document.

Which Is the Best Ephemeral Messaging App?

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 Wickr

We recommend Wickr as a great app to try first for ephemeral messaging. It has earned the trust and respect of millions of users, and it runs a reward program for hackers who find vulnerabilities in their system.

Confide is our second-favorite app for ephemeral messaging because we appreciate its reliable privacy.

Can I Trust That My Messages Are Destroyed?

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The bad news: Nothing can prevent the recipient of your ephemeral message from having an external camera ready to snap a photo or video of their screen while viewing it. Furthermore, when a service provider claims they destroy all copies of your content, you can't know that with 100% certainty, and there are reasons (such as an investigation) a provider would be compelled by law enforcement to record your messages.

The good news: Ephemeral messaging gives you much more privacy than you have without it. The inability of recipients to view your content for more than a few seconds truly decreases the chance that a 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 malign reasons, use of an ephemeral 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 opacity as you can, and ephemeral messaging reduces your exposure to embarrassment and incrimination.