How Ephemeral or Self-Destructing Messaging Works

Send messages that destroy themselves within seconds of being received

Self-destructing messaging, also 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.

Why Do People Use Self-Destructing Messaging?

Because users generally have little control over their online content, ephemeral messaging is attractive as a form of privacy cloaking. While a Facebook feed or Instagram share lives for decades online, you can send messages that are private to you and the recipient. Snapchat is particularly popular because it supports users sending photos and videos to each other without fear that widespread copies will embarrass them in the future.

An unrecognizable man reading a letter
Dan Burn-Forti / Getty Images

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

The biggest reason is personal privacy. The world doesn't need to receive broadcasted copies of what you share with your friends and loved ones. Ephemeral messaging guards against the widespread distribution of content.

There are many legal reasons that adults use ephemeral texting and photo-sharing. For example, to purchase illicit substances or contraband such as recreational marijuana or anabolic steroids. Using Wickr or Cyber Dust is one way to stay in contact with a supply source while avoiding discovery by prying eyes.

An envelope with a question mark on it
Photodisc / Getty Images

Another example is a battered spouse that is trying to leave an abusive relationship. If the abuser regularly snoops on their spouse's cellphone or laptop, then ephemeral messaging will help the spouse communicate with their supporters while reducing the risk that they will be outed by their device.

If a whistleblower wants to report ethical misconduct about their place of employment, using Wickr and Cyber Dust are smart ways to coordinate with news journalists and law enforcement if the whistleblower fears that their online habits are being observed.

Members of a secret committee or private association may want to communicate with each other about sensitive internal matters, like disciplining a misbehaving member or dealing with a public relations legal crisis. Self-destructing messages will reduce the possibility of having incriminating evidence brought against the members of the group while they coordinate with colleagues.

Messy breakups and divorces are an excellent time to use self-destructing messaging. During this heated and emotionally-charged time, it's easy to send a harsh text message or hostile voice message that could be used in legal proceedings. During these times, plan to self-destruct messages in advance, then lawyers won't have ammunition to use against you.

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

Sometimes nosy girlfriends, curious boyfriends, or over-controlling parents regularly snoop on computer devices. Automatically destroying text messages could be a smart move to keep these people from reading messages that they shouldn't.

Finally, and most importantly, 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?

There are multiple technologies that are involved with sending, ciphering, receiving, and destroying text messages and multimedia attachments.

  • Encryption prevents eavesdroppers from copying a message while it is in transit from the sender to the recipient.
  • Strong password walls regularly ask recipients to verify their identity before they can view the ephemeral messages.

The deletion process can be complex, as it involves erasing every copy on the machines that a 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.

Woman shredding a letter
Image Source / Getty Images

Prior to 2015, Snapchat also had the interesting requirement that the recipient must hold their finger on the screen while viewing a message. This was to dissuade the use of screenshots. Snapchat has since removed this feature.

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

Can I Trust That My Messages Are Destroyed?

Nothing is ever 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 the screen while viewing a self-destructing message. Furthermore, when the service provider claims that they destroy all copies of texts, how can you know that with 100% certainty? Perhaps the service provider is compelled by law enforcement to record particular messages as part of an investigation.

Paper air plane on fire crashing
Burton / Getty Images

Ephemeral messaging provides more privacy than you would have without it. The temporary nature of viewing an incoming message deters the chance that a text sent in anger or a photo sent in a lusty moment will cause embarrassment later. Unless the recipient is motivated to record a message 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 exposure to embarrassment and incrimination.

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

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 being accused of not truly deleting photos from their servers.

Paper on fire that says "I've got a secret..."
Glad to share my works with you / Getty Images

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

Facebook Messenger now offers a Secret Conversations feature that protects privacy through special encryption. This is still a new technology for FB, so be cautious if you decide you want to use 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 web-based tool which frees you from having to install and manage an app on your device.

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

Which Is the Best Self-Destruct Messaging App?

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

Screenshot of Wickr website

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.

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