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Auto-deleting messages taking off, says survey

Patrick Nelson | Aug. 26, 2015
Close to half of young people are electing to use messaging apps that auto-delete sent messages, a survey has found.

Backpacking on a smartphone
Credit: Flickr user m01229

As the Internet reels from media coverage of the Ashley Madison married dating service revelations, where a supposedly confidential user database was exposed, we’re seeing renewed interest in Internet privacy.

But Internet privacy may be something that younger folk are on top of, and taking seriously anyway.

Youngsters, who are perhaps more au fait with the vagaries of the Internet then their elders, are already widely using messaging apps that delete sent messages, a Pew Research Center survey recently found.

The survey was conducted pre-the Ashley Madison leak.

Deleting message apps

Pew found that 41 percent of young adults—those aged between 18 and 29 who use smartphones—take advantage of apps that automatically delete the sent messages. That’s compared to just 17 percent of all smartphone-users who responded to the survey.

Youngsters are thought to be trendsetters, so those privacy-clawing young people’s actions may be indicative of things to come -- for everyone.

Older users

Pew found that older smartphone users do like to use the same kinds of non-traditional, non-SMS messaging apps too, but the survey found that the youngsters were more likely to use the deleting-message genre of apps.

Free, non-SMS messaging apps such as Snapchat or Wickr automatically delete messages, Pew says in the survey text.

Pew interviewed 1,907 adults earlier this year.


It’s worth noting that self-deleting messaging can be compromised to varying degrees, though

Screenshots; stolen encryption keys; messages getting saved on the company's servers; and routings through “multiple countries' fiber networks,” can cause assumedly-deleted messages to be captured, Lucian Armasu points out in a Tom’s Hardware article about the Pew study.

Armasu doesn’t mention which apps he thinks could be compromised, but does say that “some apps with auto-deleting messages can also have built-in protection against taking screenshots.”

Reddit commenter Duane534 points out, in response to Armasu’s article, that on the BBM messaging app, names are “edited out of the screen,” thus rendering screenshots of limited value.

In any case, Armasu says that the way to get around any of these auto-delete failings is to use end-to-end encryption.

‘Temporary illusions’

Unrelated to the Pew survey, as one would expect, privacy advice abounds post-Ashley Madison scandal. The Verge website proffers the best that I’ve seen:

“Assume everything you say and do is public,” Chris Plante writes of the rules for living with the Internet.

Privacy settings and passwords are “temporary illusions that distract from the reality” of the assumption that everything will be made public, Plante says.

No such thing as ‘delete’

Others agree. “There is no such thing as ‘delete; when it comes to data travelling anywhere,” Reddit user Tripleg comments on the Tom’s Hardware story.


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