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Gmail's 'Self Destruct' Feature Will Probably Be Used to Illegally Destroy Government Records

Activists have asked Google to disable the feature on government accounts.

Mack DeGeurin

Image: Shutterstock

A new update rolling out for Gmail offers a “self destruct” feature that allows users to send messages that expire after a set amount of time.

While this may sound great for personal use, activists fear that government organizations will use the feature to delete public records to hide them from reporters and others interested in government transparency. Normally, government emails are available to journalists, researchers, and citizens using Freedom of Information Act requests (and its state-level analogues.)

“As more local and state governments and their various agencies seek to use Gmail, there is the potential that state public records laws will be circumvented by emails that 'disappear' after a period of time,” the National Freedom of Information Coalition wrote in a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. “The public’s fundamental right to transparency and openness by their governments will be compromised.”

“We urge you take steps to assure the “self-destruct” feature be disabled on government Gmail accounts and on emails directed to a government entity,” the organization added.

The self destruct feature was announced on April 25 as part of Google’s new confidential mode for G Suite. In addition to self destruct, confidential mode allows users to delete messages after they have been sent and places restrictions on how recipients can interact with received emails.

“Technology that allows the self-destruction of official, electronic public communications is not promoting transparency, and under most state open government laws, is illegal,“ Leary wrote in a press release.

Google’s update marks the first major overhaul to Gmail since 2011.

“Technology companies need to provide solutions to government that take into account transparency laws created to ensure accountability and preservation of government proceedings,” NFOIC Executive Director Daniel Beavarly said in a press release.

Google did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.