Facebook’s Poke, Snapchat Highlight Issues with Secure Communications

Facebook’s Poke can vaporize messages between users.

In Ye Olden Days before the creation of the Web, disposing of a written message was a relatively simple matter: apply the relevant piece of paper to a bit of flame, and dispose of the ashes afterwards.

If vaporizing electronic messages were that easy, it might have saved more than a few social reputations and political careers. But emails, texts and photos have a nasty tendency to linger around, often forgotten, before popping up again at inopportune moments.

A handful of startups have emerged to solve this particular conundrum. One of the more prominent is Snapchat, which quickly deletes photos or video sent via its service. Earlier this month, Facebook released Poke, a Snapchat competitor that also wipes out messages after a preset amount of time (1,3,5, or 10 seconds).

But neither Snapchat nor Poke are safe as it seems: Katie Notopoulos over at BuzzFeed recently offered a way to view videos (but not photos) stored within the apps’ files. Facebook suggested it was working on a fix, while Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel told her: “The people who most enjoy using Snapchat are those who embrace the spirit and intent of the service. There will always be ways to reverse engineer technology products—but that spoils the fun!”

No messaging system is completely safe from prying eyes; if nothing else, someone can take a screen-grab of a particular text or image, although doing so might set off an alert. Nonetheless, interest in keeping messages as secret as possible is clearly driving startups to come up with more sophisticated ways to cloak online communications. Silent Circle, for example, offers a way to transmit encrypted “Silent Texts” between subscribers, which then self-destruct after a certain period of time; the company also offers encrypted video conferencing and email.

Silent Circle and its ilk are aimed more at business users who need to transmit sensitive information; it’d be hard to imagine a responsible employee relying on Poke or Snapchat for official business. Nonetheless, the growing interest in all these platforms suggests a hunger for secure communications via the cloud.


Image: Facebook