Friday, October 08, 1999

Next: E-mail that self-destructs

The Associated Press

        SAN FRANCISCO — Sending nasty e-mail messages about the boss? Using your computer to maintain an interoffice affair? How about those sensitive electronic business negotiations?

        Those e-mail messages, designed to be fleeting, spur-of-the- moment communications, never really disappear — witness the government's use of internal Microsoft messages in its antitrust case.

        Once e-mail is created, it is virtually impossible to erase from computers, and experts can reconstruct even the “ghosts” of deleted messages.

        But what if an e-mail message could be written in code and the key to read it could be destroyed at the sender's command?

        A start-up high-tech firm called Disappearing Inc. has created a system that does just that. It encrypts each e-mail message, lets the sender set the key's life span — anywhere from a few seconds to years — then turns the message back to gibberish once the key self-destructs.

        “Encrypted e-mail is as good as disappeared,” said Kevin Werbach, managing editor of the high-tech newsletter Release 1.0. “The National Security Agency might be able to crack it with a supercomputer, but you couldn't read it, and that's good enough.”

        The system works only if both the sender and the recipient want the message to disappear, though. Send harassing e-mail, and the re cipient could easily print the message or copy it to another file before the key self-destructs, Mr. Werbach said.

        Other e-mail products on the market can make a sender anonymous or secure a communications link from outsiders, Mr. Werbach said. But Disappearing Inc.'s encrypted e-mail is the only product he knows of that builds in a time limit for messages sent through common e-mail systems.

        Disappearing Inc. co-founder Dave Marvit came up with the idea after listening to speakers at a conference describe all the things one should not say in e-mail, said co-founder Jeff Ubois.

        The private company was formed in February.


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