The hacks and data breaches increasingly common, people are looking for ways to communicate without leaving a trail. This is where encrypted messaging apps come in – tools like Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp that secure chats through end-to-end encryption. However encryption is useless if your messages are stored indefinitely on company servers. That’s where ephemeral messaging steps in – services like Snapchat and Facebook’s vanishing messages that automatically delete conversations. No stored logs mean anything to hack.
The early pioneer in private ephemeral messaging was Privnote. Launched in 2011, Privnote lets users create text notes that self-destruct after being read once. Could a simple service like Privnote keep your messages safe from prying eyes though? Let’s explore what encryption it offered, its security strengths and weaknesses, and how hack-proof Privnote chats really were.
Privnote’s encryption and security
To use Privnote, you just visited the website, type a message, and hit “Create Note.” This generated a unique URL that let a recipient view the message once before it self-destructed. No accounts or apps are required – all are managed through the Privnote website. This simplicity was enabled by some key encryption techniques:
- Random URLs for access- Each note got a random URL that functioned like a decryption key, letting only those with the link see the message.
- TLS encryption- Privnote used HTTPS TLS v1.2 encryption to secure all traffic between your browser and its servers. This protected messages in transit.
- AES-256 encryption messages were encrypted at rest on Privnote’s servers using 256-bit AES, a military-grade standard. The random URLs held the keys to decrypt.
how to private message? Instant deletion- After a message was viewed once; it was immediately deleted from Privnote’s server so it couldn’t be accessed again. No retained data for hackers to steal. This combination generated securely encrypted notes with total ephemerality. Messages existed only long enough for the intended recipient to view them before being wiped from Privnote’s system. No accounts meant any stored information linking you to any notes. The result was anonymous private messaging with minimal vulnerabilities:
- No stored chat logs for hackers to obtain
- Random URLs made notes near impossible to intercept
- HTTPS encrypted all traffic with the server
- AES-256 protected messages even if the server was compromised
So in terms of the encryption and technology itself, Privnote was very secure. But…
Privnote’s security weaknesses and limitations
While Privnote’s core service was robust, it did have some limitations in its security:
- No E2EE between recipients-Messages were encrypted on Privnote’s server but not end-to-end between the sender and viewer. The email/channel used to share note URLs could expose messages in transit.
- Vulnerable browser access- Web browsers remain susceptible to XSS, clickjacking, and other client-side attacks that could compromise messages.
- Basic DDoS prevention- Privnote was susceptible to denial of service attacks that could overwhelm its servers and block access, though it did implement some basic DDoS mitigation.
- Security holes in early versions- Like any software, Privnote took time to strengthen protections. Early vulnerabilities like session cookie leaks exposed some bugs.
- Trust in server code-Users had to trust that Privnote’s source code functioned as described. An external code audit would have provided more assurance.
- Limited organizational security-private was a side project of a college student – not the hardened infrastructure of an enterprise messaging app.
So Privnote had some definite security weak spots but for an early-stage free service providing a basic level of encryption and ephemerality, it performed well on core privacy measures.