Google says its new disappearing email option won't be a liability for companies, insisting it isn't 'the Snapchat of email'

Google

  • Gmail recently revealed a new look that came with a lot of new features, including one that lets you set an expiration date on your emails.
  • ‘Confidential mode’ is designed to give users more control over who sees their emails, but it could present challenges for preserving evidence in cases involving companies, the way a similar tool did in the Uber vs Waymo case.
  • Google plans to put the responsibility on companies by letting G Suite admins decide if this should be enabled and giving them the option to reject incoming emails in confidential mode.

In April, Google announced that Gmail would be getting a whole slew of new features, including one that sounds a lot like Snapchat and Wickr – the content-expiring messaging platform that put Uber in a sticky situation in the recent Uber vs Waymo case.

Gmail’s new confidential mode lets users set an expiration date on outgoing emails, so that the content of the email eventually disappears. Microsoft Outlook, Exchange, and various third-party extensions offer a similar feature, but Gmail’s version is more widely accessible and easier to use. It rolled out to personal account holders using the new Gmail in May, and later this summer it will be available to business accounts.

Companies that enable it should be wary of the repercussions, however. Just last year, Uber was forced to admit that it had relied on Wickr to communicate internally during the period of time that Google alleged the ridesharing company was stealing technology from its self-driving car division. The messages were never retrieved, and the case ultimately ended in a settlement – widely seen as a win for Uber.

The case raised a question about whether platforms using ephemeral (temporary) messaging should be regulated. Recognising the blurry ethical lines, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi even told all employees to stop using encrypted messaging platforms when discussing Uber business before the case went to trial. A few months after the case closed, Gmail announced it would be releasing confidential mode.

“There’s nothing wrong with [expiring messaging] inherently,” said David Horrigan, discovery counsel and legal education director at Relativity, adding that this was basically the way emails were sent back when storage space was a concern. “It’s the way that it’s used that matters.”

Google says its version is slightly nuanced in that the emails are never truly destroyed, making it more difficult to use it malevolently.

“Confidential mode does not equate to the Snapchat of email,” a Google representative said to Business Insider in an email. “Received messages in confidential mode do not ‘explode,’ ‘self-destruct,’ ‘vanish,’ or “disappear.'”

After it ‘expires,’ the confidential-mode email continues to exist in the sender’s Sent folder, and becomes a shell of an email with nothing but a subject line in the receiver’s inbox. To prevent negligent behaviour from employees, the Google representative said that when the feature rolls out to companies, administrators will also have the option to disable the feature internally and reject incoming confidential-mode emails.

This safeguard puts the responsibility on administrators and executives, making it difficult for companies to argue negligence; courts have welcomed arguments for things far less offensive than intent, reasoning that “the other side is still damaged by your spoliation of that evidence,” according to Horrigan.

With confidential mode, Google might have figured out the right balance between individual security and company accountability. We’ll know for sure once companies are able to start adopting the new feature.

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