Comment »Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 8:16 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

‘Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want your mother to read’. The idea behind the saying is that nothing on the internet ever dies, and could one day come back to haunt you. Unfortunately roughly 85% of the emails I send I would rather not have read by my immediate family.

Realistically a throwaway email or Facebook message never truly gets thrown away. Recent cases of information interception, specifically tabloid phone-tapping, have featured prominently in the news. It seems reasonable to assume that emails are an even easier target. You can only guess what Damian McBride would have given for those emails he sent to Derek Draper to stay private.

Researchers at the University of Washington have released a paper and an open source beta version of a piece of software that aims to change the way sensitive messages are sent over the internet. Other encryption services are available but they usually require some element of trust in a third party or some additional key which may be retrieved retrospectively.

The team in Washington have created Vanish, a piece of software which takes a body of text from an email or online message; encrypts it with a key, which never gets revealed to the user, destroys the local key copy and sends it in fragments via peer to peer sharing (such as bit torrent).

Peer to peer systems are also known as Distributed Hash Tables (DHT). The fragmented data sent is lost as the DHT’s evolve. DHT nodes carrying information cleanse themselves over time, a process known as ‘churning’.

The receiver uses the same software to convert the encryption. After 8 hours (or multiples thereof) the message then becomes purely the random encryption. The original message is rendered inaccessible by either party (or by any third party) forever. The software takes only seconds to work for normal sized emails and messages. Watch a cool demonstration video here.

The reality is that many social networking sites and ISP’s archive data for long periods of time. Some of which you may want to keep private. Sure it’s great to look back at old emails you sent and had completely forgotten about. It is fascinating to revisit the mistakes of your life which you have invariably forgotten, repeated, forgotten, repeated and forgotten again. Or is that just me? Either way there are certainly some messages which need not linger in the aether forever.

The debate about this type of technology is incredibly interesting. It seems that this type of software will benefit the Damian McBrides of this world but more worryingly the criminals and terrorists. Some may argue that ordinary, law-abiding people have nothing to fear by having all their messages stored. Something about this perspective worries me a lot.

There will, most likely, be governmental objections to this type of software. If it, or some other software, takes off and becomes ubiquitous, the culture change will be pronounced. Is it important that we can send all data privately; or should we just accept that there is no such thing as true privacy on the net? Are consequences for what you put out into cyberspace fair enough?

Should we safely assume that ‘the man’ does not care about your membership to Nipple-Tasslers Anonymous or that you got off with your boyfriend’s best mate last weekend?

One of the most popular email providers Gmail; already scans your email to offer targeted marketing based on the content of your message. This is pretty obvious to anyone reading emails, especially when your spam folder has adverts for SPAM alongside. This seems neither particularly malevolent or sophisticated.

Are the desirable interceptions and consequences of data monitoring enough for us to relinquish our everyday privacy concerns?

The internet and cloud-computing in particular, are becoming more prominent in our lives. As we give more of ourselves away publicly, it seems vital, to me, to be able to keep some things genuinely private.  We just have to make sure we find out about those hidden terror plots somehow too…

There are complex debates to be had but I think the answer can simply be summarised  like this :

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I’m amazed we didn’t think of it before.

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