A group of computer scientists at the University of Washington has developed a way to make electronic messages "self destruct" after a certain period of time, like messages in sand lost to the surf, reports The New York Times. The researchers said they think the new software, called Vanish, which requires encrypting messages, will be needed more and more as personal and business information is stored not on personal computers, but on centralized machines, or servers. In the term of the moment this is called cloud computing, and the cloud consists of the data — including e-mail and Web-based documents and calendars — stored on numerous servers. The idea of developing technology to make digital data disappear after a specified period of time is not new. A number of services that perform this function exist on the World Wide Web, and some electronic devices like FLASH memory chips have added this capability for protecting stored data by automatically erasing it after a specified period of time. But the researchers said they had struck upon a unique approach that relies on "shattering" an encryption key that is held by neither party in an e-mail exchange but is widely scattered across a peer-to-peer file sharing system.
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