News Stories

Those Emails You Wrote in Haste

...will they come back to haunt you? - Spyware is sneaking onto our computers in nefarious ways. How can we protect ourselves from this sort of thing in the future?

The situation is getting serious: College Facebook posts or pictures can resurface during a job interview. A lost cell phone can expose personal photos or text messages. A legal investigation can subpoena the entire contents of a home or work computer, uncovering incriminating, inconvenient or just embarrassing details from the past.

A new program could make this kind of information disappear, so that can't resurface and embarrass (or harm) you. After a set time period, electronic communications such as e-mail, Facebook posts and chat messages would automatically self-destruct, becoming irretrievable from all websites, inboxes, outboxes, backup sites and home computers. Not even the sender could retrieve them.

Researcher Tadayoshi Kohno says, "If you care about privacy, the Internet today is a very scary place. 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."

Many people believe that pressing the "delete" button will make their data go away, but researcher Roxana Geambasu says, "The reality is that many Web services archive data indefinitely, well after you've pressed delete." But the truth is that "when you send out a sensitive e-mail to a few friends you have no idea where that e-mail is going to end up. For instance, your friend could lose her laptop or cell phone, her data could be exposed by malware or a hacker, or a subpoena could require your e-mail service to reveal your messages. If you want to ensure that your message never gets out, how do you do that?"

To solve this problem, a team of computer scientists has developed a prototype system called Vanish that can place a time limit on text uploaded to any web service through a web browser. After a set time text written using Vanish will, in essence, self-destruct.

The email or text message will arrived scrambled and the the recipient will have to highlight the text and presses the "Vanish" button in order to read it. After eight hours the message will be impossible to unscramble and will remain gibberish forever.

"Today many people pick up the phone when they want to talk with a lawyer or have a private conversation," Kohno says. "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."

But some of us don't want our emails to vanish, which is why we post a transcript in the subscriber section of every one of our chats with special guests! If you want to join us for the next one (or for our regular Wednesday chats), we'd love to have you (all you need to do is to subscribe today)!

Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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