We're all 'netizens' now. Like it or not, none of us can avoid spending part of our lives in the obscure territory known as cyberspace. We are no
longer occasional visitors, as in the early days of the Net, passers-through in search of information or services; these days, part of us lives
permanently online. We have email accounts, we hang out in chat rooms and forums like this one, we store documents, pictures and videos there. We
create a presence for ourselves on the internet.
This presence, on its travels across the Web, leaves a trail. And it is not an ephemeral presence; potentially, it could outlast flesh and blood,
enduring as long as the servers stay up.
Increasingly, many of us are worried by this online trail, this legacy of content we leave behind, and by what it says about us. And we have reason to
be worried: job seekers are sometimes confronted with embarrassing or compromising words or pictures by or about them; others have found their
creative work stolen and used for profit by others, or data they left behind conflated with other people's to libellous effect - your head
photoshopped onto someone else's naked body, for example, and emailed round your office or classroom.
The internet has given us any number of potential nighmares like this, but to date there's been very little we could do about it (other than bringing
a paralyzing self-consciousness and near-paranoia to all our activities online). So we've just accepted the potential danger, tried to police
ourselves as best we could and hoped for the best.
Now, for the first time, there seems to be a better recourse.
It's called Vanish
. Basically, it's a form of coding you can use to cause your messages and other data
disappear, over time, from the internet.
Vanish is a research system designed to give users control over the lifetime of personal data stored on the web or in the cloud. Specifically,
all copies of Vanish encrypted data — even archived or cached copies — will become permanently unreadable at a specific time, without any action
on the part of the user or any third party or centralized service.
For example, using the Firefox Vanish plugin, a user can create an email, a Google Doc document, a Facebook message, or a blog comment — specifying
that the document or message should "vanish" in 8 hours. Before that 8-hour timeout expires, anyone who has access to the data can read it; however
after that timer expires, nobody can read that web content — not the user, not Google, not Facebook, not a hacker who breaks into the cloud service,
and not even someone who obtains a warrant for that data. That data — regardless of where stored or archived prior to the timeout — simply
self-destructs and becomes permanently unreadable.
I tried it. It seems to work easily enough. You simply download the software (free for now) and encrypt your messages and other data by copying them
into a screen window. You use the same windo to decrypted Vanish-encoded messages from other people. Or, instead of downloading, you could use the
demo online service
I think Vanish is revolutionary. It has a lot of implications: technological, social, political, even sexual. It will probably change the way we
function on the internet and possibly our entire perception of cyberspace. So let's have your views and opinions about all that.
It would be great to hear a few user experiences and views, too.
[edit on 17/8/09 by Astyanax]