The Stack Archive

Viber can now forget it for you wholesale

Thu 26 Nov 2015

Opinion Messaging and videoing app Viber has introduced the ability to erase messages that the user sent from the devices of the people who received it. The company revealed the functionality in a Twitter post on Tuesday.

It’s an apparently minor tweak intended to ameliorate the problem of accidental message sends to the wrong recipient, according to a note appended to the tweet, and by making communication ephemeral instead of unerasable, its really an extension of SnapChat’s primary selling point.

Self-destructing messages are not new – Line offers a ‘hidden chat’ feature which can erase messages a specified time after send, and from 2014 WeChat permitted users to reverse any sent content for a period of two minutes after sending.

erase-viber-deleteYet the ability to ‘recall’ content from someone else’s device at will and at any time, though the dream of BCC disaster victims, seems to present a number of malignant possibilities, depending on what actually happens to the content. If messages are stored on Viber’s infrastructure and the ‘remote erasure’ simply removes device permission to view that content, there is presumably some recourse in the event of user intimidation; but the situation is not clear in this regard at the moment.

French Facebook users recently noticed similar functionality added to the Facebook Messenger app, in the form of ‘the capability to send self-destructing’ messages. A Facebook representative described the feature as a ‘fun option’. Another user suggested that the new Viber functionality could be used to help limit the advent of revenge porn.

Email usage was in decline among Viber’s demographic even five years ago, and the current crop of teens using Viber and similar apps may only retain email accounts for purposes of authentication and other functional processes, rather than as a genuine tool of communication. But those of us who use email more fully are likely horrified at the thought of a former correspondent having the power to cut a swathe through our inboxes, leaving only our half of a conversation that’s no longer convenient for the user to remember – or to allow us to remember (presumably any quoted correspondence in our replies would also need to be erased).

Anyone familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four will remember the strange novelty of Winston Smith being employed to rewrite or erase the past according to the will of the Party. Since the security of communications apps such as SnapChat and Viber are currently the fierce object of governmental ire, users are likely to feel empowered by whatever functionality they provide, including the ability to erase content from other people’s devices – a usage that, without doubt, no-one would tolerate from the government.

Perhaps if we want control over our data in a way that limits other people’s memory of the things we said or the information that we put out into the world once upon a time, we should take control right at the start – and not press the send button. If communications heads much further down this road, we risk multiple versions of ‘the truth’; in a small way, multiple versions of history.


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