Researchers at the University of Washington have developed code that will automatically delete files like emails after a pre-set time limit.
The Vanish software developed by the team allows the user of any web-based service to specify to encrypt messages. The user doesn’t get the key, instead it is put into a global peer to peer (P2P) network for a specified time before disappearing, rending the message unencryptable.
"Today many people pick up the phone when they want to talk with a lawyer or have a private conversation," said UW computer scientist Tadayoshi Kohno.
"But more and more communication is happening online. Vanish is designed to give people the same privacy for e-mail and the Web that they expect for a phone conversation."
The system as it stands uses the Vuze Bittorrent Distributed Hash Table as its P2P network and currently sets default time limits on massages as eight hours, although longer periods should be possible.
The team is now developing a Firefox application that integrates Vanish for general use.
"In today's world, private information is scattered all over the Internet, and we can't control the lifetime of that data," said team member Hank Levy.
"And as we transition to a future based on cloud computing, where enormous, anonymous datacenters run the vast majority of our applications and store nearly all of our data, we will lose even more control."
The team will present their full paper on the system next month at USENIX Security '09 in Canada.