Send disappearing emails using Gmail. Keep messages private

Some emails you send may contain personal or confidential information that you want to keep private. Gmail enables you to send disappearing emails, or self destructing emails. Here’s how.

What are disappearing messages or a self destructing email? They are email messages that can be read for a limited time. They have an expiry date that could be as little as a day or several months. They have an expiry date and after that time, they can no longer be read.

You will be familiar with disappearing messages if you have used Snapchat on a phone. You can do a similar thing with Gmail emails too. You can send an email that can be read today, but tomorrow it expires and it can no longer be seen.

This is a great way to send emails that contain personal or private information. Normally, emails are stored by the recipient forever. They could read then next month or next year, and it will still be in their inbox 10 years from now. That is a potential privacy and security risk.

Gmail lets you enable confidential mode for an email. This does several things that make emails more private and more secure:

  • Set an expiry date for an email. After that date, the email cannot be read.
  • Manually disable an email so it can longer be read by the recipient.
  • Make an email private by requiring an SMS passcode to read it, like 2FA.

If an email is sent from Gmail using confidential mode, you can disable it in the recipient’s inbox even after they have received it. This could be used if you made a mistake in an email, you said something you shouldn’t have, you want to send another email with corrections, and so on. This is not the same as cancelling an email before it is sent. This works after the person has received it.

You can be sure that only the intended person can read an email by sending a passcode to their phone. Even if someone got access to their email, they don’t have the phone, cannot get the passcode off it, and so they cannot read the email.

Send emails using Gmail confidential mode

So, how does confidential mode work with Gmail? Let’s take a look with a step-by-step guide.

Enable confidential mode

Compose an email using Gmail in a web browser: Screenshot
Compose an email in Gmail and toggle confidential mode

When you are creating an email at the Gmail website in a browser, click the padlock icon in the toolbar at the bottom of the compose window. This toggles confidential mode on and off. Turn it on

Set the expiry date

Configure confidential mode in Gmail: Screenshot
Confidential mode settings in Gmail

This window appears when confidential mode is enabled. An email sent using this cannot be forwarded to someone else, it cannot be printed and it cannot be downloaded. Already this means that it is more private and secure than a regular email

Disappearing emails: Set an expiry date using confidential mode in Gmail
Set an expiry date for the email

Confidential mode emails have an expiry date and you can choose from 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 3 months or 5 years. The shorter ones are likely to be the most useful. The email will not be readable after the expiry date, if even it is in the someone’s email inbox.

Set an SMS passcode for emails

Require an SMS passcode to read a confidential mode email: Screenshot.
Require an SMS passcode to secure an email in Gmail

Another option that confidential mode provides is SMS passcode. It can required if you need to make sure that only the intended person can read the email. Anyone else who receives it will not have the their phone and therefore will not be able to receive the passcode to unlock the email.

Select SMS passcode, click the Save button to save the settings for this email.

Send the confidential email

Send a confidential mode email in Gmail: Screenshot
A confidential mode Gmail email

When you return to the compose window, an expiry notice has been added to the bottom of the email. Click the Send button when you have finished writing it.

Provide a phone number for an SMS passcode for a confidential mode email: Screenshot
When an email is sent, provide the recipient’s phone number

If you selected the SMS passcode option, then before the email is sent, you will be asked for the phone number of the person you are sending it to. Enter their phone number and then click the Send button.

Recieve emails sent in Gmail confidential mode

Confidential mode emails can be received by Gmail or by third party email services. They work slightly differently, but the end result is the same – self-destructing and disappearing emails.

Confidential emails in Gmail inbox

Open an email that was sent using confidential mode using Gmail in another Gmail account and if no SMS passcode was required, it an be read as normal until the expiry date. After that, it cannot be read.

Verify your identity for a confidential mode email in Gmail: Screenshot
Get a passcode to read a confidential mode email

If the sender used the SMS passcode option when creating the email, you see a Verify identity message like this and you must click the Send passcode button.

Enter the SMS passcode sent to your phone: Screenshot
Only someone with the passcode can view the email

The message changes to an input box and a few seconds later, a passcode is sent by text message to your phone. You must open it, read it and then enter the passcode into the email.

Reading a confidential mode email in Gmail: Screenshot
Read the confidential mode email

Enter the passcode and you can read the email as normal, providing it has not passed the expiry date set by the sender.

Revoke access to a sent email

If you sent an email using confidential mode, at any time, you can revoke access to it. This prevents the recipient from reading it. If they have not yet read it, they never will. If they have read it, they will not be able to read it again after access permission has been revoked.

Disappearing emails: An expired email sent using Gmail confidential mode: Screenshot
An email past its expiry date

Open the Sent email box in Gmail and open the email you sent. At the bottom of the email is the content expiry date. Click Remove access and the person will no longer be able to read the email, even after they have received it.

Confidentual emails in third-party email

Confidential emails would not be very useful if they could only be used with Gmail. However, they can be received by anyone and they work the same. You can set an expiry date and require an SMS passcode to open the message. Here is how it looks in a third party email service when they receive a confidential email.

A confidential mode Gmail in a third party email service: Screenshot
Confidential email in a third party email service

Click the View the email button and a web browser tab opens. If an SMS passcode is not required, the email is displayed. If it is required, you must click a SEND PASSCODE button. It arrives on your phone a few seconds later and you then enter it.

Get a passcode to read a confidential mode Gmail email: Screenshot
Get a passcode to read the email

The confidential email is then displayed in the browser. Note the expiry date. You will not be able to read it after this.

A confidential mode email in a third-party email service: Screenshot
A confidential mode email sent using Gmail

This is a great feature for Gmail and it has some important uses. It limits who can read an email and how long they have to read it. It also prevents them from forwarding, copying, printing or downloading the email. However, they could still screenshot it, so it is not perfect, but it does add a lot of privacy and security to emails sent in Gmail.

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