Why Your Disappearing Photos Might Not Be Safe

And then, poof, they were back

Key Takeaways

  • Many messaging services promise your pictures will self-destruct, but don’t be too sure, experts say. 
  • WhatsApp is the latest company to let you send private and disappearing photos and videos.
  • To circumvent the deletion function in messaging services, users can take screenshots or forward them to their emails or messaging system to save them as a personal backup copy.
Someone taking a selfie with a dog in the middle of a dirt field.

Justin Paget / Getty Images

A range of photo- and video-sharing services offer self-destructing messages, but don’t count on your snaps being erased. 

WhatsApp now will let you send private and disappearing photos and videos. After the recipient opens the image for the first time, "View Once" deletes it, without saving it to a phone. WhatsApp said the feature is aimed at "giving users, even more, control over their privacy." Experts urge caution, however, with your private pics. 

"It’s important that users understand that there are workarounds to WhatsApp View Once feature," Lynette Owens, the global director of internet safety for kids and families at cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"For example, a recipient can surreptitiously capture a screenshot or record a video from another device before it disappears—and even if they don’t, nothing prevents them from communicating what they’ve seen by word of mouth."

Secret Chat?

WhatsApp says that photos or videos you send using the View Once feature won’t be saved to the recipient’s Photos or Gallery. Once you send a View Once photo or video, WhatsApp won’t show it again.

The messaging app won’t let you forward, save, star, or share photos or videos sent or received with the View Once media feature. You only can see if a recipient has opened a View Once photo or video if they have Read Receipts turned on.

There’s also a time limit. If you don’t open the photo or video within 14 days of it being sent, the media will expire from the chat. You can restore the View Once media from backup if the message remains unread at the time of backup. If the photo or video already has been opened, the media will not be included in the backup and can’t be restored.

But the service has its limits, Sammy Basu, founder of cybersecurity firm Careful Security, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"WhatsApp may delete it from your phone app, but there’s no guarantee that messages will be permanently deleted from their servers," he added. "Organizations are required to retain messages for future investigation purposes."

The Disappearing Options

Many messaging services allow you to have secret conversations or use some kind of vanishing technique upon reading the message, including Instagram, Snapchat, Telegram, and Confide. 

Confide and Telegram are the most secure of these apps, Katherine Brown, the founder of Spyic, which makes smartphone monitoring software, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"Confide was built specifically for disappearing messages," Brown added. "This app disables screenshots when the app is open, reveals text messages one line at a time, and erases them by default. Telegram allows end-to-end encrypted secret chats. Messages cannot be forwarded to other users and disappear if a user switches devices."

Screenshots of how the WhatsApp disappearing messages feature works.

WhatsApp

They all have their limits, though. To circumvent the deletion function in messaging services, users can take screenshots or forward them to their emails or messaging system to save them as a personal backup copy, Basu said. 

Basu says that users can’t control how service providers handle the data passed through their systems.

"What we can control, though, is making the data unreadable by implementing encryption," he said. "Only the intended recipient should be able to decipher the data using a private and public key combination."

Users can never be 100% sure their disappearing photos and videos are deleted, cybersecurity expert Pieter VanIperen, managing partner at PWV Consultants, told Lifewire in an email interview.  

"They will vanish from the conversation, but it’s really important that people understand one very crucial thing about the internet: Once it’s out there, it’s out there," he added. "So if it’s not something you ever want to be found, the best way to ensure it’s truly gone is to keep it off the internet."

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