Vanishing online posts

July 23, 2009

This Vanish program/service for limiting data persistence on things you post online has some interesting implications:

Computing and communicating through the Web makes it virtually impossible to leave the past behind. College Facebook posts or pictures can resurface during a job interview; a lost or stolen laptop can expose personal photos or messages; or a legal investigation can subpoena the entire contents of a home or work computer, uncovering incriminating or just embarrassing details from the past.

Vanish is a research system designed to give users control over the lifetime of personal data stored on the web or in the cloud. Specifically, all copies of Vanish encrypted data — even archived or cached copies — will become permanently unreadable at a specific time, without any action on the part of the user or any third party or centralized service.

For example, using the Firefox Vanish plugin, a user can create an email, a Google Doc document, a Facebook message, or a blog comment — specifying that the document or message should “vanish” in 8 hours. Before that 8-hour timeout expires, anyone who has access to the data can read it; however after that timer expires, nobody can read that web content — not the user, not Google, not Facebook, not a hacker who breaks into the cloud service, and not even someone who obtains a warrant for that data. That data — regardless of where stored or archived prior to the timeout — simply self-destructs and becomes permanently unreadable.

Though this is a research prototype, it’s available as a downloadable program (with a firefox plugin) or an online service. It will be interesting to see how projects like this develop and what legal ramifications they will have.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.