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Vanishing Act

August 6, 2009

I’m Bob Karson with the discovery files — new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Getting data onto the internet is one thing; the real trick may be getting rid of the data. I mean when you write an extremely sensitive e-mail or chat message, you really have no idea where that information could turn up may be even years later.

University of Washington researchers have developed a system for making things like web-based e-mails, Facebook posts and other sensitive data have a true expiration date. To make the data “disappear” from the face of the earth — never to be retrieved by anyone.

The process works through encryption — with a pre-determined time stamp. When the time comes, all electronic versions of the text become gibberish. The prototype system is called “vanish.” Unlike standard encryption — where there’s a decipher key lying around somewhere, the secret encryption key of the vanish system is broken into parts like a puzzle. Each piece is then sprinkled on random computers that belong to worldwide file-sharing networks. Those networks regularly change as computers join or leave. Eventually the parts of the key are completely inaccessible.

Users can set sensitive text to go kablooey in any 8-hour increment — but once it’s gone — it’s gone, even from the sender’s computer. The researchers are moving beyond text to images and who knows, maybe audio.

“The Discovery Files” covers projects funded by the government’s National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research — brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov or on our podcast.

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