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That proposal is part of a patent application extension filed last week by AT&T, which has proposed a "method, system and apparatus for providing self-destructing electronic mail messages."
AT&T's play is that emails are ill-suited to safeguarding sensitive data. "Conventional e-mail systems may also be inappropriate for sending confidential or proprietary information because these systems do not allow the sender of an e-mail message to control the lifespan of the e-mail message," according to the patent application. "E-mail messages may, therefore, languish in a recipient's e-mail 'in-box' or on an e-mail server computer for months or even years." Furthermore, while some systems do allow a sender to request a deletion date for emails, "an e-mail sender cannot be certain that a sent e-mail message containing time sensitive information will ever be deleted," it said.
The heart of AT&T's proposal involves email clients and servers that are designed to ensure that messages can be set to self-destruct at a designated time. The patent application is an extension of a similar patent filed by the same three researchers in 2002, which was issued in 2008.
[ Are privacy worries much ado about nothing? See Online Privacy: We Just Don't Care. ]
According to the patent application, "when a self-destructing e-mail message is received, the destruction date associated with the e-mail message is identified and the message is destroyed at the specified time." That time could be a specific date and time, a preset countdown that starts when the message is read, or the message could be deleted as soon as it's been read and closed.
Users would also be able to restrict how the email's contents could be used. "The e-mail client application may prevent operations from being performed on self-destructing e-mail messages such as printing, forwarding, saving, moving or other types of operations for duplicating the content of the e-mail message," according to the patent application.
Of course, such a system wouldn't prevent a user from performing a screen capture of the email message. Or if some type of technological restriction was put in place on that technology -- which is built into operating systems -- users could still take a photograph of the screen with a smartphone. Then again, if the email system was deployed in a controlled environment, such as a facility designed to handle classified material, smartphones and other recording devices could be prohibited.
While AT&T's patent application appears to be geared to the business set, other companies are already selling similar tools for consumers. Snapchat, for example, allows users to set a photo to be viewable for up to 10 seconds, and the sender gets notified if the recipient attempts to perform a screen grab. The service, which works on iOS and Android devices, now moves more than 150 million photos in a single day, compared to the 40 million photographs Instagram sees daily, though Facebook's Snapchat clone, Poke, appears to lag behind.
Snapchat reportedly sports a predominantly teenage user base, which has drawn predictable cries that the service is merely a front for sending dirty messages, aka sexting. But Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel has dismissed that criticism, telling TechCrunch: "I'm not convinced that the whole sexting thing is as big as the media makes it out to be." Regardless, Snapchat is currently valued at $800 million, the Guardian reported Wednesday.
In a statement, Snapchat investor Dennis Phelps of IVP said that one of the reasons his firm decided to invest in Snapchat was because fleeting messages offer a new way of communicating. "The temporary nature of the photo or video often creates a sense of excitement and an urgency of consumption that is rare in this era of information overload," he said.
Competing services, such as Wickr, allow any type of multimedia message to be encrypted and set to self-destruct, as well as to communicate anonymously -- useful for journalists working with anonymous sources.
But Derek Schueren, general manager of information access and governance at Recommind, told Byte that such services might expose businesses to legal liabilities, if they didn't retain information required for responding to lawsuits, patent requests or per regulatory requirements. "You have an obligation [to retain data] if there's a possibility of litigation," he said, with that obligation extending not just to email but other business communications.
Furthermore, message-deletion services may promise more security than they actually provide. Richard Hickman of Decipher Forensics reported in April that by using AccessData's Forensic Toolkit on a Samsung Galaxy S3 -- which runs Android -- with Snapchat installed, he'd been able to restore supposedly deleted "snaps." All that was required was removing the ".nomedia" extension appended to the end of an images marked for deletion.