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The Upsides and Downsides of Private Messaging Apps

Private Messaging Apps Are Quickly Growing

Have we reached the end of the “age of oversharing”? Private messaging apps are the fastest-growing category of apps, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry. Recent stats show downloads of private social messaging apps increased by 200 percent in 2013 over 2012.

From the basic urge to “say Yo” or share a few emojis to the distribution of self-destructing content to select audiences, the desire for greater control over privacy seems to drive the private messaging boom.

The Guardian recently reviewed its picks for the 10 best messaging apps. One omission from this list is Wickr, regarded as one of the most secure options.

The allure of private messaging technology is undeniable. But there are upsides and downsides to these apps and tools.

The Upsides of Private Messaging Apps

We all have a nuanced understanding of our relationships with others and the contexts in which we communicate. In traditional social media, this has been limited by platforms that may lack adequate sharing options. Moreover, the business objectives of social media companies (increasing user base and driving user engagement) have a bias for public sharing and openness.

Private messaging offers a range of benefits:

  1. Apps offer a way to curate content for a more intimate group of followers.
  2. Certain apps offer the ability to share anonymously.
  3. Apps can offer a degree of impermanence to what you share, meaning content may self-destruct once viewed or after a pre-determined period of time.
  4. Having a messaging option separate from your more public accounts can help prevent unintentional sharing.
  5. Most apps are convenient, free, and optimized for mobile use.

Potential Downsides:

Before you install the latest and greatest round of sharing apps, ask yourself:

  1. How can you be sure “ephemeral” apps delete what you share? As users of some apps have learned, shared content may still exist on devices. There are few guarantees that recipients won’t take screenshots which can then be distributed.
  2. Are anonymous apps truly anonymous? How much information are you asked to provide when you create an account? What non-personal information is collected by the app, and can that information be associated with your account? As this Danish Consumer Council’s hidden video experiment shows, we’d be shocked if our local bakery asked for as much information as the average mobile app.
  3. How secure is the app? Many startups may not have robust cybersecurity processes, and even those with solid protocols may be subject to security glitches (as the recent Instagram bug revealed.) Are our messages encrypted? Is address book data stored on a user’s device or the app provider’s servers? What are the app’s policies regarding sharing, selling, or trading user data?
  4. Could the app expose you to cyberbullying or harassment? With anonymity or secrecy comes the potential for abuse. It can also be difficult to report users for inappropriate content. Recently the anonymous app After School was banned from the Apple store because of these concerns.

There are plenty of resources to help you make informed decisions about private messaging apps:

Appthority’s Reputation Report (PDF): This report analyzes the behaviors of the top 400 mobile apps, including the top 100 free apps and 100 paid apps for both iOS and Android. It identifies apps’ risky behaviors and can help you understand the risks posed by those behaviors.

PrivacyGradePrivacyGrade provides detailed information about an app’s privacy-related behaviors. The ratings are summarized in the form of a grade ranging from A (most privacy sensitive) to D (least privacy sensitive). Currently it rates only Android apps.

EFF’s Secure Messaging Scorecard: As part of a new EFF Campaign for Secure & Usable Crypto, this site offers a scorecard of certain apps and tools and their adoption of security best practices.

SafeSmartSocial.comThough intended primarily as a guide for parents curious about the apps their kids may be using, this site provides clear, concise guides to many private messaging apps.

Private messaging apps can be a fun, useful way to engage, but as always, proceed cautiously. Pause before you post. Regardless of how private an app claims to be, continue to share mindfully.

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