This weekend I was finishing up my next opinion piece for the fine Law Technology News. My piece is about how making more and more data “easily accessible” is both essential for Big Data to fulfill its promise and also a huge risk to privacy, intellectual property, and so on. Look for that in the next issue.
Part of what inspired me to write about this was the success of Snapchat, a mobile app that lets users “chat” using photographs instead of text. Neat idea, but the twist is that the images automatically disappear after 1-10 seconds (the time is set by the sender). As you would imagine, Snapchat has gained a reputation as a teenage sexting tool, despite some indications otherwise. I set it up to see what all the fuss was about, and cajoled my wife to install it as well. Frankly I would say that any service that automatically deletes any self-portrait I have taken after turning 40 is doing me a huge favor. Anyway, Snapchat was quickly copied by Facebook, with its Poke application, although Poke seems to be less popular than Snapchat to date.
I did some more digging around in this space, and it turns out there are a number of startups focused on so-called self-destructing messages. For example:
- Vaporstream offers “secure recordless messaging” technology aimed at enterprise users
- A startup involving Phil Zimmerman, crypto-hero and creator of PGP, called Silent Circle offers secure mobile voice and messaging, including “burn notices” for text messages
- Burn Note: self-destructing email
- Wickr: self-destructing texts, pictures, video
- Gryphn: self-destructing text messages, with screenshot capability disabled
- Privnote: web-based, self-destructing notes
- Tigertext: enterprise-focused secure texting with message timers
- Burner: temporary phone numbers for calling and texting (hat tip to Bill Potter at The Cowen Group for pointing me to the last two on this list)
The category of “disappearing email” has been around at least since the late 1990s. In that era, a company called ”Disappearing Inc.” got a lot of attention, but was not successful. A similar company called Hushmail from that era is still around, but suffered from some bad press when email that users thought had been “disappeared” was turned over in the course of a lawsuit. In any case, neither company ushered in a new era where email automagically goes away. However, given this new crop of startups, I wonder: were these 90s companies ahead of their time, poorly managed, or just a bad idea?
On the corporate side, I don’t see a large appetite for this kind of technology. I have had this conversation with clients many times, and although they love the idea in concept, they are very worried that using the technology will create the appearance of evil (just as the first thought we naturally have about Snapchat is that is must really be for sexting). Executives in particular feel that the use of the technology creates the impression of having something to hide. Perhaps if email had had this capability from the beginning, the risk would not be there. Corporate culture is conservative by nature, and no company wants to draw attention to itself in this area.
This fear is not without justification. Many general counsels are fearful of deleting any corporate email messages at all, which is why many of the world’s largest and “well-managed” companies have hundreds of terabytes of old email sticking around. Remember that in the world we live in, prosecutors sometimes chastise companies for not keeping all their messages forever because, after all, tape storage is “almost free.” There certainly is a case to be made that spoliation fears are generally overblown, given the number of times spoliation actually leads to a a fine or judgement, but the fear of throwing away the wrong thing is not groundless. Getting rid of junk defensibly requires a logical, justifiable process.
Unless an organization is in a highly classified environment, I think most general counsels and their litigation partners would tremble at the thought of explaining why most of the company used “normal” email but their executives/salespeople/take your pick used “special” email that disappears. It does not pass the smell test. Selective use is problematic.
On top of that, you have users who find operational benefit from having records of their business activities in email. You also have the emerging world of Big Data, where email in aggregate potentially has big value if you get it onto Internet-scale infrastructure and point the right tool at it.
In any case, check out the full piece when it runs in the next issue of Law Technology News.
Author: Barclay T. Blair