VAUGHN DAVIS: Can you keep a secret? (Your phone can’t!)

Opinion 18/08/2017

Can you keep a secret? (Your phone can’t!)

My mate Simone (who first introduced me to the world of secret messaging) once said that in the Venn Diagram of online privacy, the “online” and “privacy” circles don’t overlap. If you want something to stay secret, don’t share it on your phone or computer.

She was right. Online is forever – and don’t think that hitting delete on a text message anything. Sure, you’ve deleted the message from your inbox, but every text message you send exists in four or more places… and they might never go away.

Your phone: even though you’ve hit delete, installing an app like iPhone Rescue can bring text messages back from the dead. It’s worth remembering too that if it’s a work phone, your employer may have the right to do this once you hand your phone in.

Cloud backup: many smartphone users back their phones up to services like iCloud. That’s great if you lose your phone and need to recover the contents… but it also means there’s a copy of all your messages sitting online. And if someone has your backup login details then they could create a copy of your phone – texts and all.

Your telco: those messages don’t go straight from phone to phone like an electronic version of tin cans and string… your telco sends them to the recipient, but also holds onto them for 6 months or so. And if the Police come knocking, they could release your messages.

The other person: all the deleting in the world won’t do you any good if the person you’ve sent the message to hasn’t deleted their copy too.

More secure messaging alternatives

SMS isn’t the only way to message, of course. Facebook Messenger now has a “secret message” option you can turn on that means not even Facebook could access your conversation (Whatsapp has that turned on by default). And encrypted messaging app Signal holds almost nothing on its servers – making it the go-to secure messaging app for journalists, dissidents and anyone else who doesn’t want to be found.

And if you really want to go cloak and dagger, take a leaf from Frank Underwood’s book and buy a “burner.” A burner is a cheap prepaid non-smartphone you buy (using cash and wearing a hoodie, naturally) to use for just one purpose. Since it has no connections to the rest of your online life, it should mean your secrets stay a little bit safer.

The bottom line though is that Simone was right. If you want something to stay secret, the internet isn’t the place to do it.