When you send a standard text, the content is not private or secure. Traditional SMS or MMS messages are logged by your mobile service provider. Your messages can also be read if someone is able to unlock your cell phone. The best way to keep your texts private is to have them expire. How do you send disappearing text messages?
To send a disappearing text message, use a text-pasting service with an expiration option set. Send the link via SMS. The message content will automatically delete per the link settings. Many smartphone messenger apps offer disappearing messages where messages cannot be retrieved after a time limit.
Let’s take control of your digital communication and ensure your private messages stay just that – private. Check out the nine methods below to send disappearing text messages.
Private Standard SMS Text Message
Apple is partially to blame. Many users don’t know that the iMessage app falls back to insecure, 1990s SMS text messaging when both sender and receiver aren’t 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 apps 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.
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 web browser and the ability to copy-paste between apps.
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.
- Open your mobile browser and go to a PrivateBin instance listed in their directory. Let’s choose https://vim.cx/ for example.
- Type your sensitive text.
- 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
- Tap PrivateBin’s Send button.
- Copy the long URL which looks like
- 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; 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.
- 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 can 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.
That’s a huge hassle. Can’t I just use my normal messenger app?– You, probably right now
Messengers With Expiring Or Disappearing Texts
Below are some messengers platforms that I’ve found have expiring or disappearing text message options. I’ve included steps on how to activate self-destructing messages along with some tips.
If your preferred service isn’t listed, consider using the PrivateBin method above.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted
✔️ ️Disappears/Expires [enable manually in each chat]
- Turn off backups.
- Switch to the most private settings.
- Go to Settings > Account > Privacy.
- Set each to the most-private settings.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted [only in Secret Conversations]
✔️ ️Disappears/Expires [only in Secret Conversations]
- Turn on Secret Conversations by tapping your avatar icon > Secret Conversations.
- Do not use this app for SMS handling. Tap your photo > SMS.
- Do not upload your contacts list (which 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 the info icon for that user️ > Go to Secret Conversation.
- Be sure to manually switch to Secret Conversations and set an expiration.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted [photo & video only]
- Only photo and video content are end-to-end encrypted. Snapchat has had securing text on its roadmap for a while.
- 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.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted [only in Secret Chat]
✔️ ️Disappears/Expires [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 for you and your contacts
- Sync Contacts and Suggest Frequent Contacts should be off
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted
- Signal is a drop-in replacement for most messengers and SMS/MMS apps making it an easy switch 👍
- Setting all messages within each thread or conversation to expire is easy
- In a conversation between two or more Signal users, tap the three-dot overflow menu in the upper right.
- Tap the “Disappearing messages” option.
- Set your expiration.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted
- This app is more than just a messenger, it’s an entire suite of tools.
- No phone number is required to register an account.
- Setting message to Explode is easy, fun, and one of the best implementations I’ve seen
- Below each message entry box, select the stopwatch icon.
- Set the “Explode messages after” timeout option for each conversation
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. Individual messages you send will self-destruct while others in your conversation may have different settings for their messages.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted
- Messages are end-to-end encrypted and transmitted over the Tor anonymity network.
- No phone number is used for sign up and usernames are randomly assigned strings.
- Easily set message expiration for each thread:
- Tap the overflow, three-dot menu in the upper right.
- Select the “Disappearing messages” option.
- Choose the timeout for all messages in the particular chat.
✔️ End-to-End Encrypted
- Messages are end-to-end encrypted and transmitted over Bluetooth, local WiFi, or the Tor anonymity network
- No phone number is used for registration and you can select a username of your liking
- Conversations as a whole will self-destruct after seven days.
- Within each conversation
- Select the overflow/three-dot menu and choose the “Disappearing messages” option
- Toggle the Disappearing message option on
WARNING: Problems With All Disappearing Messages
There are two weak points in all these messengers and texting scenarios:
- 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 a third party (someone outside the conversation) might take a screenshot or photo of your chat. This is a low-probability situation but deserves noting.
- If don’t want to switch away from less-secure apps like Google’s Messages or iMessage, use PrivateBin to make your text content become inaccessible after reading.
- If you need a drop-in replacement with expiring messages, switch to Signal.
- If you want to stay with a big-tech platform because of the network effect, choose SnapChat with your privacy settings at max.
- If you need the utmost security and control around their messages, use Session or Briar.
This table details how popular messaging apps protect (or don’t) your text messages.