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Boffins boast self-destructing cloud data

Prototype auto-vanishes sensitive email

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Just in time for the evolution to cloud computing, boffins at the University of Washington have developed a tool that makes electronic data self-destruct automatically after a set period of time.

The technique is designed to protect people against sensitive information that may linger on computer networks and later come back to bite them in job interviews, lawsuits, or in other unintended ways. It encrypts messages with a secret key, which is then divided into dozens of pieces and distributed over random computers that belong to peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.

Over time, parts of the key are automatically lost, and when enough key segments are inaccessible, the message becomes unreadable forever. Users can designate the length of time they want before the data expires.

A prototype of the service, dubbed Vanish, is available here as an extension for the Firefox browser. To work, both the sender and recipient must install the software.

Of course, Vanish won't protect data if the recipient cuts the protected data and pastes it elsewhere, or otherwise allows third parties to see it while it's in the clear.

But the tool could provide a valuable level of protection in the cloud, when emails, pictures and other potentially sensitive data can literally live on dozens of hard drives that are dispersed all over the globe. As security and regulatory wonks continue to wrestle with the implications of such a system on data-retention policies, tools like Vanish may provide a useful approach.

More about the tool is available here. ®

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