Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Into Thin Air

It’s amazing how much trouble a click of a mouse can cause. In one click, you can send that poorly considered blazing email, or submit an ill-advised comment to a blog. Through that one click, you’re creating an indelible online record that can be tracked back to you forever.

I think we’ve all probably been there. You’ve pounded out that angry email and hit send – only to think about the consequences hours or days later. You think to yourself, maybe I shouldn’t have called him a **** or brought so-and-so into this. Did he read the email yet? I wonder if I can hack his computer and delete it before anyone notices. And then, all you want to do is disappear… or better yet, have the email vanish.

Well, we’re getting close. Researchers at the University of Washington recently introduced Vanish, an open source program that allows users to completely destroy online text – like email, documents, posts, etc.

As we move further toward Web 3.0 and the use of cloud computing, private information is scattered around the Internet. Vanish allows us to regain a bit of control over any text entered into a web browser. InformationWeek describes it better than I can:

Vanish allows users to specify that all copies of any text-based data they're creating disappear in a certain amount of time. The software takes advantage of the same peer-to-peer networks that allow people to share music files online. It encrypts data, breaks the encryption key into pieces and scatters them on machines across the network. Since machines are constantly joining and leaving peer-to-peer networks, pieces of the key disappear and it can't be reconstructed.

Pretty neat. But Vanish is in its infancy and comes with some limitations. The biggest, I think, is that both the sender and the recipient must be using the program for it to work. So you still can’t quietly retract that drunken email you sent your ex last weekend. Not yet at least.

Certainly, this isn’t a sure-fire tool either. Vanish’s developers stress that it is a prototype and warn that bugs and nuances are still being worked out. So users beware.

And just because the online file may be destroyed, does not necessarily mean the text is truly gone. Copy/paste remains one of the oldest tricks in the digital book, and can thwart all the peer-to-peer document destruction software in the world. And a few steps beyond that, developers at the Universities of Texas at Austin, Princeton and Michigan have created Unvanish – basically the yin to Vanish’s yang – proving that it is possible (although difficult) to reconstruct destroyed content.

So while developers battle it out, of course Google has at least a partial solution to our dilemma of a hastily sent dilemma: Mail Goggles, which is active late Fridays and Saturdays by default, forces the sender to answer five timed math problems to ensure they’re of the right frame of mind to be sending a late-night message.

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