Gmail's new 'self-destructing' messages could protect private business emails

A new 'confidential mode' for Google's email service also allows users to request the recipient confirm their identity through a PIN sent via text message.

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  • Gmail is testing a new 'confidential mode' that allows users to set an expiration date for their correspondence, and attempts to prohibit users from forwarding, downloading, or copying an email.
  • The actual security this provides is unclear, as the feature makes no mention of the use of encryption.

Google is testing a feature called "confidential mode" in Gmail, which allows users sending mail to other Gmail users to set an expiration date for their correspondence, and informs the user that "Options to forward, download, or copy this email's contents and attachments will be disabled." According to TechCrunch, which first broke this story, users can also request that the recipient "confirm their identity with a passcode sent via text message."

The report also indicates that a "Learn more" link in the preview points to Google's help section, though the linked page was not found. By the time this feature is rolled out to all users, the exact mechanics of the feature may work differently than described--the utility of an un-downloadable attachment, as the above text implies, is somewhat limited. Similarly, the actual security offered by this concept may also be limited, as the TechCrunch report notes that there is no control mechanism preventing the user from taking a screenshot of the message.

It is similarly unclear how this feature interoperates with users of non-Google services. Because of the decentralized, protocol-based nature of email, the ability of Google to unilaterally change the access requirements of a given email appears limited.

Additionally, the actual security this provides is unclear, as the feature makes no mention of the use of encryption--it appears to be useful primarily in the context of preventing access in the event of an unattended device already logged in to an account.

SEE: Comparison chart: VPN service providers (Tech Pro Research)

This news follows earlier reports of a complete redesign of the Gmail interface in development. Due to a notice delivered prematurely to G Suite users, Google itself tipped the existence of the redesigned Gmail interface. The interface, which combines the existing Gmail interface with some aspects of the "Inbox by Gmail" concept, includes direct access to Google Calendar from Gmail, as well as the AI-generated smart reply option that has been part of the mobile app version of Gmail since last May.

The default inbox view also has new icons that differentiate the types of attachments accompanying emails, as well as list file names, though the compact view returns the icon to the traditional paperclip and hides file names. The redesign also includes the ability to snooze emails, making them reappear as unread emails after a duration of the users' choosing, according to the notice.

Overall, the new interface resembles Material Design standards that were introduced with Android 5.0, and have been gradually adopted across most Google products. That design language has also been gradually iterated since it was introduced. In February, a commit to Chromium noted changes for "Material Design 2," though the reference was scrubbed after it was reported by XDA-Developers. Further commits have noted other changes to design mechanics that appear to be intended to improve support for touchscreen support on Chrome OS.

A fuller view of changes to Google's product lineup is expected as part of the Google I/O conference next month.

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Image: iStockhoto/Talaj