Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

This Article Will Self-destruct: A Tool to Make Online Personal Data Vanish

23.07.2009
Private information scattered all over the Internet and impossible to control. A new system, called Vanish, puts an expiry date on electronic text. Electronic communication sent using Vanish -- such as e-mail, Facebook posts and chat messages -- would have a brief lifetime and then self-destruct.

Computers have made it virtually impossible to leave the past behind. College Facebook posts or pictures can resurface during a job interview. A lost cell phone can expose personal photos or text messages. A legal investigation can subpoena the entire contents of a home or work computer, uncovering incriminating, inconvenient or just embarrassing details from the past.

The University of Washington has developed a way to make such information expire. After a set time period, electronic communications such as e-mail, Facebook posts and chat messages would automatically self-destruct, becoming irretrievable from all Web sites, inboxes, outboxes, backup sites and home computers. Not even the sender could retrieve them.

"If you care about privacy, the Internet today is a very scary place," said UW computer scientist Tadayoshi Kohno. "If people understood the implications of where and how their e-mail is stored, they might be more careful or not use it as often."

The team of UW computer scientists developed a prototype system called Vanish that can place a time limit on text uploaded to any Web service through a Web browser. After a set time text written using Vanish will, in essence, self-destruct. A paper about the project went public today and will be presented at the Usenix Security Symposium Aug. 10-14 in Montreal.

Co-authors on the paper are doctoral student Roxana Geambasu, assistant professor Tadayoshi Kohno, professor Hank Levy and undergraduate student Amit Levy, all with the UW's department of computer science and engineering. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Intel Corp.

"When you send out a sensitive e-mail to a few friends you have no idea where that e-mail is going to end up," Geambasu said. "For instance, your friend could lose her laptop or cell phone, her data could be exposed by malware or a hacker, or a subpoena could require your e-mail service to reveal your messages. If you want to ensure that your message never gets out, how do you do that?"

Many people believe that pressing the "delete" button will make their data go away.

"The reality is that many Web services archive data indefinitely, well after you've pressed delete," Geambasu said.

Simply encrypting the data can be risky in the long term, the researchers say. The data can be exposed years later, for example, by legal actions that force an individual or company to reveal the encryption key. Current trends in the computing and legal landscapes are making the problem more widespread.

"In today's world, private information is scattered all over the Internet, and we can't control the lifetime of that data," said Hank Levy. "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."

The Vanish prototype washes away data using the natural turnover, called "churn," on large file-sharing systems known as peer-to-peer networks. For each message that it sends, Vanish creates a secret key, which it never reveals to the user, and then encrypts the message with that key. It then divides the key into dozens of pieces and sprinkles those pieces on random computers that belong to worldwide file-sharing networks, the same ones often used to share music or movie files. The file-sharing system constantly changes as computers join or leave the network, meaning that over time parts of the key become permanently inaccessible. Once enough key parts are lost, the original message can no longer be deciphered.

In the current Vanish prototype, the network's computers purge their memories every eight hours. (An option on Vanish lets users keep their data for any multiple of eight hours.)

Unlike existing commercial encryption services, a message sent using Vanish is kept private by an inherent property of the decentralized file-sharing networks it uses.

"A major advantage of Vanish is that users don't need to trust us, or any service that we provide, to protect or delete the data," Geambasu says.

Researchers liken using Vanish to writing a message in the sand at low tide, where it can be read for only a few hours before the tide comes in and permanently washes it away. Erasing the data doesn't require any special action by the sender, the recipient or any third party service.

"Our goal was really to come up with a system where, through a property of nature, the message, or the data, disappears," Hank Levy says.

Vanish was released today as a free, open-source tool that works with the Firefox browser. To work, both the sender and the recipient must have installed the tool. The sender then highlights any sensitive text entered into the browser and presses the "Vanish" button. The tool encrypts the information with a key unknown even to the sender.

That text can be read, for a limited time only, when the recipient highlights the text and presses the "Vanish" button to unscramble it. After eight hours the message will be impossible to unscramble and will remain gibberish forever.

Vanish works with any text entered into a Web browser: Web-based e-mail such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, Web chat, or the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook. The Vanish prototype now works only for text, but researchers said the same technique could work for any type of data, such as digital photos.

It is technically possible to save information sent with Vanish. A recipient could print e-mail and save it, or cut and paste unencrypted text into a word-processing document, or photograph an unscrambled message. Vanish is meant to protect communication between two trusted parties, researchers say.

"Today many people pick up the phone when they want to talk with a lawyer or have a private conversation," Kohno said. "But more and more communication is happening online. Vanish is designed to give people the same privacy for e-mail and the Web that they expect for a phone conversation."

For more information, contact Geambasu at 206-685-1963 or roxana@cs.washington.edu, Hank Levy at 206-543-9204 or levy@cs.washington.edu, and Kohno at 206-331-0840 or yoshi@cs.washington.edu. On Tuesday and Wednesday Kohno will be in Boston and best reached via e-mail.

Geambasu | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://vanish.cs.washington.edu

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht NASA CubeSat to test miniaturized weather satellite technology
10.11.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht New approach uses light instead of robots to assemble electronic components
08.11.2017 | The Optical Society

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

Im Focus: Researchers Develop Data Bus for Quantum Computer

The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...

Im Focus: Wrinkles give heat a jolt in pillared graphene

Rice University researchers test 3-D carbon nanostructures' thermal transport abilities

Pillared graphene would transfer heat better if the theoretical material had a few asymmetric junctions that caused wrinkles, according to Rice University...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA detects solar flare pulses at Sun and Earth

17.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

NIST scientists discover how to switch liver cancer cell growth from 2-D to 3-D structures

17.11.2017 | Health and Medicine

The importance of biodiversity in forests could increase due to climate change

17.11.2017 | Studies and Analyses

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>