July 2, 2013
Self-Destructing Emails? AT&T Has Already Filed The Patent
Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
In nearly every episode of the classic 1960s TV show 'Mission Impossible', viewers would hear the line, "this message will self-destruct." Likely everyone who has ever sent an email probably wishes, at one time or another, those messages could also self-destruct.Someone at AT&T apparently watched too many reruns of the old spy series, and now the communications giant has reportedly applied for a patent for self-deleting emails. Once sent, these emails will not remain in the recipient's inbox for all eternity but will "self-destruct" after a predetermined length of time.
The US patent application number 20130159436, "Method, System and Apparatus for Providing Self-Destructing Electronic Mail Messages" was filed on June 20, 2013.
"A method, system, and apparatus for providing self-destructing e-mail messages are described. An e-mail client application provides a user interface through which the sender of an e-mail message can enter the message and a time period for destruction of the message," the patent abstract read.
"Once the sender has provided this information, the e-mail client application sends a request to an e-mail server application to transmit the self-destructing e-mail message. The e-mail client application may also receive self-destructing e-mail messages. 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. The e-mail client application can also limit the number and type of operations that may be performed on a self-destructing e-mail. An e-mail server application is also provided that receives requests from the e-mail client application to transmit self-destructing e-mail messages and perform other functions."
Thus, the application reportedly outlines an email client system along with a server that can send and receive messages which self-destruct. This system could even alert the sender that an email has been forwarded and all copies could be eradicated, including replies and forwards.
However, the filing notes once an email has been sent, it is outside the control of the sender. These can be copied, saved, printed and even forwarded. In this way, it appears a digital trail could still exist even if the original email has been eradicated.
This system also would require the vendor and everyone who receives the messages to have compatible software - and it isn't entirely clear whether these secure messages could actually be forwarded to a non-compatible system.
As such AT&T has reportedly also noted that this tool is not meant to be a replacement for all email systems, but the patent applications added that "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."
What this means is that AT&T's email system won't replace most of what users today rely on for basic communication, but this could be something used for more secure email conversations.
There are still some issues, as Forbes noted: "This writer has read the patent information in the link above. It would appear that the old-fashioned screen grab would still work nicely. Just, you know, so you know." In addition, e-mail recipients could certainly copy and paste the information in an email as well, so there might still be ways for some of that information to be preserved.