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6/27/2013
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This Email Will Self-Destruct: AT&T Seeks Patent

Demand for self-deleting messages is on the rise, as demonstrated by Snapchat's $800 million valuation and AT&T's related patent filing.

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Could emails filled with company secrets or regulated information be remotely deleted at a preset time and safeguarded against all known forms of copying or repurposing?

That proposal is part of a patent application extension filed last week by AT&T, which has proposed a "method, system and apparatus for providing self-destructing electronic mail messages."

AT&T's play is that emails are ill-suited to safeguarding sensitive data. "Conventional e-mail systems may also be inappropriate for sending confidential or proprietary information because these systems do not allow the sender of an e-mail message to control the lifespan of the e-mail message," according to the patent application. "E-mail messages may, therefore, languish in a recipient's e-mail 'in-box' or on an e-mail server computer for months or even years." Furthermore, while some systems do allow a sender to request a deletion date for emails, "an e-mail sender cannot be certain that a sent e-mail message containing time sensitive information will ever be deleted," it said.

The heart of AT&T's proposal involves email clients and servers that are designed to ensure that messages can be set to self-destruct at a designated time. The patent application is an extension of a similar patent filed by the same three researchers in 2002, which was issued in 2008.

[ Are privacy worries much ado about nothing? See Online Privacy: We Just Don't Care. ]

According to the patent application, "when a self-destructing e-mail message is received, the destruction date associated with the e-mail message is identified and the message is destroyed at the specified time." That time could be a specific date and time, a preset countdown that starts when the message is read, or the message could be deleted as soon as it's been read and closed.

Users would also be able to restrict how the email's contents could be used. "The e-mail client application may prevent operations from being performed on self-destructing e-mail messages such as printing, forwarding, saving, moving or other types of operations for duplicating the content of the e-mail message," according to the patent application.

Of course, such a system wouldn't prevent a user from performing a screen capture of the email message. Or if some type of technological restriction was put in place on that technology -- which is built into operating systems -- users could still take a photograph of the screen with a smartphone. Then again, if the email system was deployed in a controlled environment, such as a facility designed to handle classified material, smartphones and other recording devices could be prohibited.

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Cara Latham
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Cara Latham,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/10/2013 | 1:35:36 PM
re: This Email Will Self-Destruct: AT&T Seeks Patent
As I was reading this article, I wondering what these companies would do for reporting or legal purposes if the emails self-destructed. Then I saw Schueren's comment that businesses could be exposed to legal liabilities. I'd have to agree with this, but I would further note that this could create some transparency issues for both businesses and governmental entities. It would be a lot harder to maintain an open and transparent government if this ability allowed government employees to send self-destructing emails to hide certain details from the public.
anon2860526156
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anon2860526156,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/18/2013 | 7:11:16 PM
re: This Email Will Self-Destruct: AT&T Seeks Patent
Bigstring Corp already has a patent in 2005 for the same process

http://goo.gl/NAigh
FrankM674
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FrankM674,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/21/2013 | 4:10:22 AM
re: This Email Will Self-Destruct: AT&T Seeks Patent
I've created a simple tool that allows encrypted email messages, text messages, instant messages, or anything else to be sent as a link to a temporary self destruct container powered by a secure connection to a SQL database.

It even has a lifespan. I launched it a few months ago, then ATT comes out looking to patent more ideas. Interesting timing. https://icrypt.me free for all to use. Market value of the company is unknown. The tool has other features, encrypts text and lets you bury it in an obfuscated URL or inside the alpha channel of an image.

Since my tool uses open source technologies, and directly it competes with the idea of a self destruct email without actually being a self destruct email. The problem with a self destruct email is that it can never actually exist (emails can be read by every machine they pass through, typically 3 to 5 minimum in even the shortest routing).

https://icrypt.me is free, advertising based.
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