Keep Private Text Messages Secure

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Private text messages made public by the court? There are many ways you can protect your chats. And you should do so sooner than later.

Private text messages made public by the court? There are many ways you can protect your chats. And you should do so sooner than later.

Imagine that you sent private romantic texts to someone you were interested in. Now imagine that you’re on trial for fraud and a former company executive reads aloud the private message you sent. In recent times, prosecutors have subpoenaed millions of private text messages to incriminate people.

What about text messages that highlight our most intimate moments?

For journalists, whistleblowers, and political dissidents talking to sources, secure messaging is crucial.

A conversation doesn’t have to be harmful to a government. You don’t even need to share anything highly-publicized to be at risk.

In addition to being subject to law enforcement subpoenas, private chats often pop up in social groups. People post them on social media. Reporters publish them. They even end up in civil trials.

The heart of the viral New York Times story “Who Is The Bad Art Friend?” is gossipy group chats, emails, and documents unearthed during legal discovery.

Private chats implicated several Bollywood actors in a recent scandal involving drugs. Law enforcement officers used WhatsApp messages to prove their innocence. Sen. Ted Cruz’s plans for fleeing Texas during a power outage to travel to Cancun, Mexico, became famous. Turns out that a member of his wife’s group chat leaked portions of a private conversation. Then, of course, there are various hacking tools that governments and private entities can use to gain access to your smartphone data.

Many people send text messages they aren’t proud of, have a private conversation go public, or be targeted because they attended a protest. Taking precautions may help, but they won’t guarantee your safety.

Alexis Hancock, director of engineering for the non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, succinctly makes the point: “Nothing makes a ghost.”

Find out where leaks are happening.

Apple devices feature default end-to-end encrypted chat software. Although end-to-end encryption is the best method for secure messaging, there are still some ways that these chats could land in court. The growing list of people who found this out the hard way includes ten prime ministers, three presidents, and a king.

Access to your smartphone and the ability to unlock it allows you to see all messages in the various chat apps. Sometimes, law enforcement can force someone to unlock their phone.

Chats require at least two people. As a result, the other person may hand over the conversation to a law enforcement agency. It’s possible that your private discussions could be stolen. This is especially dangerous when backups live in a place where third parties have access.

Remember that cloud backup can be a good thing.

For Apple devices, you can turn iCloud backups on to make iMessage chats more secure. Apple automatically saves all messages to the cloud so that you can transfer them over to a new device. These messages get encrypted. However, Apple holds a key that law enforcement can request directly.

If you’re concerned, disable iCloud backups of messages and delete all previous backups.

The same applies to cloud-based backups to which you don’t hold the encryption key. You can keep them on to prevent sensitive messages from being saved to your account.

You should immediately delete messages after the recipient has read them. iCloud backups run only once per day, so it’s best to delete them as soon as possible.

Of course, the other person may still have a record of your conversation. You can choose to have your message history deleted automatically after 30 days or after one year. Try going to Settings – Messages – Message History.

Signal is one tool that allows you to delete text messages automatically.

Signal is a popular, secure messaging platform that uses end-to-end encryption. It’s designed to preserve as little metadata as possible about your communications.

One of Signal’s most valuable features is the Disappearing Messages setting. You can choose to have messages deleted immediately or hours or days after sending. While there is always a time window in which recipients can see them for quick copy-paste or a quick screenshot, this reduces the trail if it’s accessed later.

Other apps provide ephemeral messaging and social media options. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that messages get deleted forever. For example, you can save Instagram stories even if they are no longer publicly available.

Remember the old saying: “One can keep a secret but two cannot.” It’s always best to share your most intimate thoughts and emotions with your pillow and nobody else.

Even married couples should be wary of exchanging private messages concerning anything outside their own relationship. Otherwise, things can get awfully messy and embarrassing if it comes to divorce.

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Becca Williams is a writer, editor, and small business owner. She writes a column for and many more major media outlets.