Self-destructing emails now a reality
Computer scientists from the University of Washington release open-source tool that makes messages ‘expire’
Computer scientists from the University of Washington have developed a breakthrough system that makes digital data such as emails, photos and text messages ‘expire’ so that it can’t be retrieved by either the sender or recipient after a set time limit.
"If you care about privacy, the Internet today is a very scary place," said UW computer scientist Tadayoshi Kohno. "If people understood the implications of where and how their e-mail is stored, they might be more careful or not use it as often."
The prototype system – Vanish – creates a secret key for each message, which is not revealed to even to the sender. It encrypts the message with that key, which is divided into dozens of pieces that gets scattered to random computers on file-sharing networks (peer-to-peer networks). As computers constantly join and leave file-sharing systems, parts of the key are permanently inaccessible over time and the original message can no longer be deciphered.
Vanish was released today as a free, open-source tool that works with Mozilla’s Firefox browser, but both the sender and recipient have to install it in order to use the system.
It can work with any text entered into the browser, including web-based providers Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail, and even social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
Though the Vanish prototype only works for text at present, the team said the same technique could work for any type of data, such as digital photos. Though it is technically possible to save information sent with Vanish by printing emails or saving it, researchers added that Vanish is meant to protect communication between two trusted parties.
"Today many people pick up the phone when they want to talk with a lawyer or have a private conversation," Kohno said. "But more and more communication is happening online. Vanish is designed to give people the same privacy for e-mail and the Web that they expect for a phone conversation."