Called Vanish, the open source tool is available as a stand-alone application or a free plug-in for Mozilla's Firefox browser. It works with any text that's entered into a browser -- Web-based e-mail or chat services, and social networking sites such as Facebook, or Google Docs.
Private information is scattered all over the Web, and that situation concerns both privacy advocates and casual Web users. There are no consistent rules for how data is stored, where it is stored, or when, if ever, it is destroyed.
One of the most frequent questions received by the California Office of Privacy Protection, according to the office, is how people can get information about themselves off the Web. Often, the answer is that they can't.
"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," said Hank Levy, chairman of department the computer science and engineering at the University of Washington and one of the authors of an academic paper on Vanish that will be presented at the USENIX Security Symposium next month.
Vanish allows users to specify that all copies of any text-based data they're creating disappear in a certain amount of time. The software takes advantage of the same peer-to-peer networks that allow people to share music files online. It encrypts data, breaks the encryption key into pieces and scatters them on machines across the network. Since machines are constantly joining and leaving peer-to-peer networks, pieces of the key disappear and it can't be reconstructed.
There are caveats to using Vanish -- one is that both the user and the recipient of any posting must be using the software for it to work. University of Washington researchers also warn that Vanish is a prototype, which means it may have bugs, and that it's "ahead of the law" in how it should be used.
Users who are involved in a lawsuit, for example, should be careful when using Vanish if any information they're creating needs to be preserved.
Supporters of the research that led to Vanish include the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Intel. More information on the project is available here.
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