Self-deleting notes, ephemeral or disappearing messages, are electronic communications that automatically erase themselves after a set period of time, leaving no permanent record. They work similarly to the disappearing messages made popular by apps like Snapchat and Instagram Stories. But while those are designed more for casual social sharing, self-deleting notes have become an essential tool for journalists engaged in sensitive reporting. Typically, self-deleting notes are sent using end-to-end encrypted messaging apps or secure online drop boxes. The sender set a lifespan for the message, ranging anywhere from a few seconds to a few days. Once the recipient opens the note, a countdown begins and the message deletes itself once time expires. All traces of the conversation vanish without a trace on both ends.

Reporters use self-deleting notes

  • Self-destructing messages allow journalists to converse with sources and receive documents, photos, video clips and other electronic files with a degree of privacy and security not possible with regular email or messaging. It provides a covert line of communication when sources aren’t comfortable speaking on the phone or meeting in person.
  • Reporters might use disappearing notes to receive tips about an unfolding scandal from a government leaker, collect evidence of corporate malfeasance from an inside whistleblower, or gather sensitive details about a criminal case from a nervous witness. The ephemeral nature of the messages shields the source’s identity, even if the journalist’s devices are hacked, confiscated or subpoenaed.
  • Since there are no records on either end once messages expire, it also protects sources in case the journalist is pressured by authorities or courts to hand over notes and files related to a story. Without physical or digital evidence to turn over, a reporter honestly says the materials don’t exist and avoids being held in contempt.
  1. Verification issues– The anonymous, fleeting nature of disappearing messages makes it harder for reporters to verify the sender’s identity and credibility than in-person meetings or phone calls Write your notes online using online notes.
  2. Urgent Deadlines– The ephemeral lifespan of messages means journalists have to read, digest and take action on the information within a limited window of time. Important details could vanish before a reporter has a chance to follow up.
  3. Screenshot loopholes– Even if a messaging app prevents screenshots on the recipient’s end, there’s still potential for a source or reporter to capture the message contents another way, such as with a separate camera. The self-destruct function lulls senders into a false sense of security.
  4. Metadata traces– Even if message contents disappear, metadata (information about the messages) may still be accessible to the messaging platform or app developer in some cases. With a court order or subpoena, authorities could compel companies to turn over metadata, such as sender identity, timestamps, approximate location and contents of the “to” and “from” fields.

Data breaches and targeted device seizures, reporters have to take ever more elaborate measures to shield sources and uphold the principle of journalistic privilege. Self-deleting notes have emerged as an essential arrow in the quiver, making it easier for conscientious insiders to share critical information with the press while mitigating their exposure.