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ALTOM: Want to experiment with 'Vanishing' e-mail?

August 29, 2009

I’m wary of the “send” button. I’ve sent thousands of e-mails, and a fair number of them proved to be problems later on. But e-mails are as enduring as herpes, and often just as embarrassing.

My one method of coping with this has been to read and re-read my e-mails endlessly before shipping them down the wire, and still there are some I wish I could evaporate from the Internet “cloud.” There’s also a security issue. Many e-mails contain sensitive information. They might even have a little footnote to the effect that the e-mail contains proprietary information and shouldn’t be shared, but that’s no guarantee of anything. E-mail can be encrypted such that it takes a key to read it at the receiving end, but again that’s no guarantee an old e-mail can’t be read, because the recipient can simply hand someone else your key.

There may be a cure for these ills, though. University of Washington researchers have created what they call “Vanish.” It can make e-mails and other kinds of data go away after about eight hours, if that’s what you want it to do. You can also fire out a “keep alive” signal every eight hours or so to hold onto the data. To be fully accurate, the e-mail doesn’t go away, but the ability to read it does.

Vanish works the same way as video downloads. Most video downloads today use a protocol called “bittorrent.” Even at Internet speeds, a video file is a big load for any particular computer to store and send. Breaks in transmission can cause parts of the file to be re-sent, making it even more of an imposition on the hapless server.

Bittorrent solves the problem by splitting the file into lots of pieces stored on many machines around the Internet. Each contributes its little piece when you use “client” software to ask the big, amorphous Internet “cloud” of computers to assemble a complete video at your desktop. Each one then gives up its piece, rather than having to send you the whole thing. For particularly popular files, there may be thousands of computers with those little pieces, so even a poor connection doesn’t slow transmission much.

Vanish simply makes e-mails or other data look like those video files. First, the message is encrypted. Encryption results in a key made of a string of numbers, just like ordinary encryption does. But then the key is sent around in pieces to other computers on the bittorrent network. No single computer has it all, not even yours or the recipient’s.

When you or the recipient wants to read the e-mail, you have to reassemble the key from all those computers. As computers in the Internet “cloud” jump on and off the bittorrent network, the pieces of the key don’t copy themselves from old to new computers. After about nine hours, they just fade away from the cloud. Now, the message is impossible to open, even for you. For all practical purposes, it’s gone forever.

One thing the Vanish folks had to decide on was what bittorrent client to use. They aren’t all mutually compatible. In the end, they picked the popular Vuze client (www.vuze.com). You don’t have to download the whole Vuze client, though. You download a simple add-into Firefox instead. If you just want to mess about a bit with Vanish, you can go to its site (regina.cs.washington.edu/cgi-bin/vanishservice.py) and play with text there.

The Firefox add-in (vanish.cs.washington.edu/download.html) lets you use Vanish with almost any Web service, including Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo mail, Facebook or even Google Docs. The latter is a reminder that Vanish works with any online data, not just e-mails.

There are obvious drawbacks to Vanish. It’s still primarily a research project, so it comes with no guarantees. Use it at your own discretion. Keep in mind that there are ways to defeat it. If somebody prints out an e-mail, the e-mail can’t vanish. Many e-mail programs, like Gmail, save drafts automatically that aren’t encrypted, making them easily retrieved. Vanish-encoded e-mails can’t be stockpiled and read on a laptop, because you must be online to retrieve the keys that open them.

Vanish is also technology that has once again outrun the legal profession. Retention rules may or may not apply. It’s not even clear whether e-mails sent with Vanish protection are actually legal documents. Because they die after a finite period, some legal scholars apparently think of them more as conversations than documents.

One big drawback remains for me. People don’t spend enough care on e-mail as it is. Knowing that the evidence of inept writing will be gone tomorrow can only encourage more poor writing and hasten the fall of Western civilization.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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