Last week, Google rolled out a disappearing-email option for Gmail called “confidential mode.” The feature lets users set an expiration date on emails before sending so that the contents are inaccessible after a certain period.
Confidential mode is available to users with personal accounts who opted into the new version of Gmail last month, when Google announced the latest changes to its email application. Some of the new Gmail features were available right from the start, but others – like confidential mode – are rolling out more slowly.
It won’t be available to corporate accounts until a later, unspecified date, but if you have a personal Gmail account, you can turn it on and use it right away.
Here’s how to find, turn on, and use Gmail’s new confidential mode.
To access confidential mode, users of the free Gmail service (that is, non-corporate accounts) need to opt into the new Gmail by going to the settings cog in the top-right corner and selecting “try the new Gmail.”
You can always go back to the classic version if you really hate it.
For G-Suite customers (corporate accounts), the new Gmail is available via the Early Adopter Program, which the G-Suite administrator can enable via the admin console.
Once you’ve selected the new Gmail design and it updates, hit “compose” to start a new email, and you’ll see this padlock icon at the bottom of your window.
When you click on the icon, a pop-up window will appear with two options: set the expiration date, and decide whether you want it to be passcode protected.
Your expiration dates are limited to the options Google gives you, meaning you can’t freely choose when you want it to disappear. I chose to have my email expire in one day and said yes to passcode protection.
When I hit “save,” the email turned blue.
I tried to send it right away, but because I chose to protect it with a passcode, Gmail prompted me to include the recipient’s phone number so it could send the code to them via text when the time came.
That would obviously prove to be problematic if the recipient isn’t willing to share one with you.
The email appeared in my other inbox just like any non-confidential mode email would, except there was no indication of an attachment. The real difference was noticeable when I opened it though.
In the old Gmail, you could tell if an email had an attachment before you opened it because of a little paperclip next to the timestamp.
In the new version, attachments show up as preview cards under the subject.
Even after I entered the passcode, neither was visible from my inbox.
When the recipient hits “send passcode,” a Gmail-generated code is sent to their phone via text.
After entering the passcode once, I could access the contents of the email for about 10 minutes. After that, or if I navigated away from my inbox and came back (refreshed the page), I had to request a new passcode to see the contents. The code changed every time.
This is how the email appears once the passcode is entered — or upon opening, if the sender doesn’t choose to passcode-protect it. Notice the disclaimer at the bottom that tells the receiver at what point the contents will expire.
They still won’t be able to highlight the text or download the attachments though. I couldn’t even right-click on the picture of Sundar Pichai to save it to my computer – however, a screenshot did the trick.
After a day, this what the email turned into on the receiving end. There was nothing in the body, but the subject is still there, and the timestamp is permanently set to the time it expired.
When I went back to the email I sent it from, I could still see all its contents in my sent folder. At the bottom, there’s an option to renew access in case the recipient isn’t done with the email, and the sender is forever free to forward, reply, and download.
The emails aren’t completely ephemeral if Google doesn’t get rid of the contents altogether. The intent is clearly to give you, the sender, control over who can and can’t see the text and attachments.
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