People have increasingly turned to privately communicating online through apps like PrivNote, Signal, and Telegram. However, these apps are not without their drawbacks, which users should be aware of when using them.
A private message’s upside
Compared to traditional messaging apps, private messaging offers enhanced privacy and security. Governments, hackers, and even app providers cannot spy on users’ messages with private messaging. Without fear of surveillance or data collection, people can freely discuss sensitive topics. Data monetization and advertising cannot also be carried out using protected text.
False sense of security
While private messaging apps provide more security than traditional messaging, they are not foolproof. There are still risks users should keep in mind:
- Metadata like time stamps, locations, and sender/recipient info are still visible.
- Apps have security flaws that leave messages vulnerable.
- Recipients screenshot or copy/paste messages.
- Devices could be compromised with spyware.
- Messages are protected only while in transit. Once received, they are exposed if the recipient’s device is unsecured.
Having encrypted conversations through a private messaging app does not mean users say anything without consequence. Caution is still required when discussing sensitive or illegal topics.
Encouraging bad behavior
The anonymity and secrecy of private messaging encourage negative online behaviors like cyberbullying, hate speech, and illegal activity. While people should be able to speak freely in private conversations, the cloak of secrecy leads some to overstep ethical and legal bounds in messaging. This presents a problem for private messaging platforms as they balance privacy with safety. Users should be thoughtful when interacting with others over private messaging and avoid treating it as a safe space for unethical conduct. Just because messages are encrypted does not mean basic standards of morality and legality do not apply.
Lack of accountability
Unlike public social media posts, private conversations happen behind closed doors without oversight. This lack of accountability enables the spread of misinformation among groups. While privacy is important, some scholars argue that the inability to monitor private conversations enables “hidden realities” to form that normalize radical or dangerous views. When messages cannot be linked to senders, it is harder to hold individuals responsible for harmful misinformation or conspiracies spread through private messaging. Platforms are faced with the challenge of how to moderate private content for things like illegal conduct or coordinated disinformation campaigns. And users must point out misinformation and falsehoods spotted in private messaging the same as they would on public forums.
Tips to use private messaging more securely
- Be selective about who you chat with privately and know that permanent records exist.
- Turn off chat backups and logouts of apps on all devices to limit data remnants.
- Enable disappearing messages features to automate deletion. But now recipients screenshot.
- Use apps that provide robust default settings instead of relying on users to toggle privacy controls.
- Verify contacts to avoid impersonation schemes.
- Install app updates promptly to get security fixes.
- Use secondary verification like PINs or biometrics to access apps.
- Enable remote wipe features in case a device gets lost or stolen.
- Avoid turning to private messaging for unethical, illegal, or dangerous conversations.