How To Send a Disappearing Text Message That Dependably Self-Destructs


When you send a text message, the content is not private or secure. Even the photos and videos you send do not expire and are logged by your mobile carrier. My brother-in-law sent a video of my nephews wishing me a happy birthday from inside their house. There’s now a record of my birthday, video of his sons, and living room possessions. Here’s how to send a disappearing text message.

Switch to an open-source smartphone app like Signal Messenger with a disappearing text message function. All texts, photos, voice, and videos are encrypted and messages cannot be retrieved after they self-destruct. For feature phone users or users staying on closed messengers, use a text-pasting service to secure SMS messages.

Apple is partially to blame. Many of their users don’t know that the iMessage app falls back to insecure, 1990s SMS text messaging when both sender and receiver aren’t both on iPhones. Their private conversations are logged and easily read with no expiration.

For basic, insensitive text communication, SMS may be enough. But, under-educated smartphone users share sensitive and private information in their default text app like Google’s Messages or Apple’s iMessage. These texts are often sent insecurely and logged by their carrier without encryption or time limit. This is one of the reasons politicians have their texts exposed and reported in the evening news.

Private Standard SMS Text Message

Let’s start with the best option for iMessage and old-school text message users. I lump these two together because of the fallback to SMS when both users aren’t on Apple devices. Your phone will need at least a basic web browser and the ability to copy-paste between apps.

How to send a disappearing text message that dependably self-destructs

We will use an online, text-storage service called PrivateBin. This is a website application that stores text that was encrypted before transmission so the service itself has zero knowledge of the content. It’s also open-source allowing anyone to check the code and confirm security and privacy.

How to send a disappearing text message that dependably self-destructs
  1. Open your mobile browser and go to a PrivateBin instance listed in their directory. Let’s choose https://vim.cx/ for example.
  2. Type your sensitive text.
  3. Set the message’s expiration. Recommended settings: 
    a. Use 1 day or less for expiration time 
    b. Use “Burn after reading” to make the link expire as soon as it’s used
  4. Tap PrivateBin’s Send button.
  5. Copy the long URL which looks like 
    https://vim.cx/?554acb329977d4c9#7kMp5SiZkcMDEWsYv8NGuFNWhdt3h1URKjJZwYcUJw8g
  6. Paste this into your iMessage or standard text Messages app and send it

The link produced by PrivateBin is 77-characters long. This leaves 83 characters of plain text for additional unsecured text.

When your recipient clicks the link, PrivateBin will send the encrypted text to their browser which is decrypted and displayed on their device.

Your carrier’s SMS log will never have your sensitive text, and after the link expires, the message contents are never again available. This holds true for any later hack or anyone who pokes around in your phone’s SMS history.

Additional Notes:

  • Each PrivateBin note can have a password that you and your recipient may have previously shared with each other. This is a great additional layer of assurance.
  • Do not use a URL shortener service to make the link shorter. These services often visit the link and potentially expire it before your recipient has a chance to view the message. Your attack surface expands when you share with more people or online services.
  • You must trust your recipient will handle your text message carefully and not copy, screenshot, or otherwise record it outside the browser.

Your Current Messaging System

That’s a huge hassle. Can’t I just use my normal messaging app?

– You, probably right now

You might be asking a similar question at this point. You should absolutely use whatever text messaging service gives you the right balance between convenience and privacy. Below are the most-popular big-tech platforms and some instructions on how to make them as private as they can be.

Whatsapp

(✔️ End-to-End Encrypted, ✔️ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs [enable manually in each chat])

  • Turn off backups.
    • Go to Settings > Chats > Chat backups > Back up to Google Drive/iCloud > Never.
    • “Media and messages you back up aren’t protected by WhatsApp end-to-end encryption…” per Whatsapp’s documentation for Google Drive on Android and iCloud on iPhone.
  • Switch to the most-private settings.
    • Go to Settings > Account > Privacy.
    • Set each to the most-private settings.
  • Use PrivateBin for disappearing/self-destructing messages.

Facebook Messenger

(✔️ End-to-End Encrypted [only in Secret Conversations], ✔️ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs [only in Secret Conversations])

  • Turn on Secret Conversations by tapping your avatar icon > Secret Conversations.
  • Turn off Active Status by tapping your photo > Active Status.
  • Do not use this app for SMS handling. Tap your photo > SMS.
  • Do not upload your contacts list (occurs by default). Tap your photo > People > Upload contacts. You might now have to delete all your synchronized contacts in your Facebook account.
  • Use Secret Conversations by going to any one-on-one chat > tap info icon for that user️ > Go to Secret Conversation.
  • Be sure to manually switch to Secret Conversations and set an expiration.

WeChat

(❌️ End-to-End Encrypted, ❌ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs)

  • Use this app sparingly and only for insensitive communication.
  • Use PrivateBin for disappearing/self-destructing messages on every conversation.

QQ Messenger

(❌️ End-to-End Encrypted, ❌ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs)

  • Use this app sparingly and only for insensitive communication.
  • Use PrivateBin for disappearing/self-destructing messages on every conversation.

Snapchat

(✔️ End-to-End Encrypted [photo & video only], ✔️ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs)

  • Only photo and video content is end-to-end encrypted as of Jan 9, 2019. Snapchat has securing text on their plan.
  • Lifewire created an excellent article detailing 10 Essential Snapchat Privacy Tips which I recommend following
  • Disable contact synchronization.
    • Tap your avatar icon > Settings gear ⚙️ > Contact Syncing > Delete All Contacts Data from Snapchat’s servers.
    • Snapchat continuously uploads your whole contact list. Said another way: My family & friends uploaded my name and phone number to Snapchat despite my never using the service except to write this article.
  • After several hours pouring over the privacy policy, technical documentation, and app features, Snapchat is leading the charge in privacy-centric social messaging.

Viber

(✔️ End-to-End Encrypted, ❌ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs)

  • Community chats are not end-to-end encrypted. All other chat types are E2EE according to Viber’s support site and encryption whitepaper
  • In Settings >
    • Privacy >
      • Uncheck Share ‘online’ status, Send ‘seen’ status, Use peer-to-peer
      • Facebook connect > disconnect the connection between the two services
    • Account > Viber Backup > Auto backup > Off. Do not back up your chats to Google Drive or iCloud
    • General > Proxy Server > None
    • Calls and messages > uncheck Viber In calls, Receive Business
  • Use PrivateBin for disappearing/self-destructing messages on every conversation

Discord

(❌️ End-to-End Encrypted, ❌ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs)

  • Use this app sparingly and only for insensitive text or voice communication
  • Use PrivateBin for disappearing/self-destructing messages on every conversation

Telegram

(✔️ End-to-End Encrypted [only in Secret Chat], ✔️ ️Disappears/Self-Destructs [only in Secret Chat])

  • Note that Telegram uses a non-standard, home-grown encryption cipher, MTProto, which has come under scrutiny by security researchers
  • Always use Secret Chat mode and set a default expiration
  • Go to Settings > Privacy and Security >
    • Set each item under Privacy to its more strict
    • Under the Security section, set a Passcode Lock and Two-Step Verification
    • Tap Delete Synced Contacts to remove any contacts that may have been uploaded restoring some privacy to you and your contacts
    • Sync Contacts and Suggest Frequent Contacts should be off

Signal Messenger Disappearing Messages

How to send a disappearing text message that dependably self-destructs

We’ve praised Signal Messenger in our earlier post Does a VPN Encrypt Text Messages? Simple Tech Explanation for its foundation of privacy. The app and service are built with end-to-end encryption of chats, audio, video, and calls.

Signal added disappearing messages in October 2016. This is exactly what we’re looking for and it’s been there for a while. Messages you send are set to self-destruct in your and your recipients’ chat history. For each one-on-one or group chat, you control messages you send by setting an expiration between 5 seconds and 1 week.

For example, if you send a message with a 10-minute expiration, you will no longer see the message on your side of the chat 10 minutes from when you sent it. Your recipient will have 10 minutes to read the message from the time they open your chat conversation. There is no trace after the timelimit ends; not even a placeholder or timestamp.

Disappearing messages are only three clicks or taps away:

  1. In a conversation between two or more Signal users, tap the three-dot, overflow menu in the upper right.
  2. Tap the “Disappearing messages” option.
  3. Set your expiration.

That’s it. Head over to Signal’s help page for detailed instructions. If you do not see the “Disappearing meesages” option, ensure that you and your recipient(s) are all using Signal Messenger.

Keybase Exploding Messages

How to send a disappearing text message that dependably self-destructs

The arguably most-witty option for secure and self-destructing messages is the chat function in the free and open-source Keybase suite of tools. Warning: You might fall in love with some of the features of Keybase like encrypted file storage and the cryptocurrency wallet.

All one-on-one, group, and team chats are end-to-end encrypted and have a self-destructing timer. Keybase calls these “exploding messages” and the function is a first-class option with the icon directly next to the text entry field. Each message can have a 30-second to 1-week fuse before they disappear.

Exploding messages have forward secrecy as described in Keybase’s blog entry. Each of these disappearing messages is wrapped in one additional layer of encryption. When the expiration time arrives, your device destroys the original message and its encryption key for the exploding message.

Fun Easter Egg: if you click on any of the words or images in the Keybase blog post, the article begins to explode. 🙂

Caveats To All Methods

Of course, there are two weak points in all these methods: Humans and the Analog Loophole.

We, humans, are imperfect and despite our best efforts, we are often the weak link in security and privacy. Here are a few situations where someone outside the conversation could read your private message before it expires and disappears:

  • You leave your phone unlocked.
  • Someone is looking over your shoulder physically or remotely.
  • You or your recipient decide to make a copy of the message and store it.

The Analog Loophole initially referred to copying music, but it now applies to most digital scenarios. For expiring messages, a first-party (you or your recipient) or third-party (someone outside the conversation) might take a screenshot or photo of your chat. This is a low-probability situation but deserves noting.

How To Send a Disappearing Text Message – Final Thoughts

Smart smiling woman in summer clothes holding mobile phone confident that she knows how to send a disappearing photo
  • If your standard text app, Google Messages, or iMessage is all you have, use PrivateBin make your texts private and self-destruct.
  • If because of the network effect you want to stay with a big-tech platform, choose SnapChat or Telegram with your privacy settings at max.
  • For those that truly care about their privacy, use Signal Messenger or Keybase.

Take a look at this table which breaks down MORE popular messaging apps and how they handle your text messages. ➡️

Do text messages expire? Standard SMS text messages do not expire. They are logged in an easily-read format in four locations: the text history of the sender, the text message app of the recipient, the sender’s mobile service provider and the recipient’s cellular company.

Can you send a disappearing photo on iPhone’s iMessage? Currently, it is not possible to send disappearing photos on Apple’s iMessage app on iPhones. Photographs are handled over out-dated MMS which is unencrypted and logged by mobile service companies. Consider using a secure, open-source alternative from this article.

How do you send a disappearing photo? The best option for sending a disappearing photo is Signal Messenger when both the sender and receiver are using the app. SnapChat is also committed to secure and expiring photo messages. Importantly, ensure there’s trust that the recipient will not save, export, screenshot, or copy your photo.

Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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