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Burn After Reading: Snapchat, Facebook Poke and the next self-destructing message service

Edited screengrab of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” via Zvents

Snapchat, the self-destructing photo and video messaging mobile app, has become the latest startup to go white hot.

Not only have users and the media latched onto Snapchat (50 million snaps shared a day), but Facebook may have further aided Snapchat’s rise, giving it a ton more name recognition by launching its own self-destructing messaging app under the name Facebook Poke, which hasn’t been nearly as well-received.

But Facebook Poke does have one thing that Snapchat does not: The ability to send text-only self-destructing messages.

While this is not likely to be of much consequence to Snapchat’s primary userbase, who clearly value the service as it is, with the focus entirely on visual messages, the idea of a flexible content self-destructing messaging service that Facebook Poke has raised is a compelling one and ripe with future potential.

For example, imagine a service that allowed for users to send encrypted messages to other individuals and groups that could only be read by those selected usernames or devices. The messages would be encrypted even to the company transmitting them. This seems to be similar to how Snapchat itself functions already, with co-founder Evan Spiegel telling Business Insider that his team can’t and doesn’t view the content of the snaps sent over the service.

Such encrypted, short-lived messaging could be useful for a variety of groups outside of bored teens: Dissidents, criminals, drug dealers and clients, terrorists and virtually anyone else up to politically unfavorable, illicit, unlawful or questionable activities would likely find such a service to be a quite beneficial means to their ends.

A future encrypted self-destructing, flexible content or text-based messaging service could also attempt to avoid government surveillance and subpoena by simply pleading the courier defense: That is is merely a vessel for content transmission and as it has no way of obtaining or viewing messages, there would be little use in intelligence agencies or authorities seizing their servers, as viewing them would turn up nothing of value.

Such a service would prove even more useful to disenfranchised groups or those trying to operate “under the radar” if it allowed recipients of messages to selectively download and store messages on their own devices, but without the parent courier company knowing that this had occurred. Longer-term self-destructing messages – 1 month, 1 year, etc. – would also prove valuable in this context.

One web-based app, Cryptocat, already purports to offer such a service, but the messages are not anonymized, not self-destructing and an Android version whipped by The Guardian Project is an just an “experimental alpha release – not for use in high risk situations quite yet.”

It seems quite clear that a mobile-based, or flexible mobile and Web self-destructing encrypted messaging app, would be most successful in these types of cases. Some such mobile apps have emerged – Wickr, BurnNote and TigerText – but again, none of them have had quite as much success as Snapchat.

Many older Web users may be familiar with the self-destructing messages from “Mission Impossible,” a concept that’s become associated with spies and espionage in general. For younger users, Snapchat seems to be the more familiar version of this concept, but hasn’t clearly been linked to espionage yet. It seems only a matter of time before it, or something else, does. And then things will become really interesting for the idea and growing popularity of short-lived messages.

 
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