The European Union’s Court of Justice this past week backed a “right to be forgotten,” letting individuals ask Google and other search engines to remove links to irrelevant or incorrect news stories, court rulings, old photos and other information about them.
The ruling only applies to search results displayed in Europe, but it raises a host of thorny issues, both ethical and practical. Google, which described the ruling as “disappointing,” has already received a flurry of requests to remove search results.
Related: Google Needs ‘Removal Experts’ After EU Ruling
It also serves as yet another reminder that the Internet does not easily forget, and the digital communication revolution means that emails, text messages, and potentially embarrassing photos can live on despite our best efforts to erase them.
While Google and other search engines figure out how to deal with the EU ruling, a whole crop of relatively new companies are basing their businesses on the idea that the texts, photos, videos, and emails you share or send don't have to last forever, either on recipients' smartphones, in their email accounts, or on a company's server.
The promise: That potentially embarrassing image of you will self-destruct when you want it to. Same for that sensitive email sent to a business colleague. Or the politically incorrect message texted to a buddy.
It's not a novel idea that things written in assumed confidence or pictures taken "for your eyes only" can find their way into the wrong hands and boomerang back at the sender. People have been devising ways to keep private communiqués private since the invention of writing. But in the digital and online age, it's gotten far easier for images and video to go viral in the worst possible ways, and for indelicate messages written long ago to reappear at the worst possible times.
Related: How Your Smartphone Can and Will Be Used Against You in a Court of Law
Snapchat was supposed to allow for some restraints on images you wanted to share. But the company agreed earlier this month to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that photos sent using the company's app didn't disappear as completely as advertised. It's clear that Snapchat’s privacy failed to live up to its promises – and a reminder that truly secure sharing is far more complicated in our digital age.
Enter startups companies like DSTRUX and Confide, both of which purport to do the job of actually keeping private messages private. Other companies like TigerText and ArmorText also offer businesses self-destructing messaging.
DSTRUX lets you share images, video, and documents via email or Facebook. It says recipients can only see the shared image for the time you specify, and they can't save, forward, or alter it in anyway, or even take a screenshot — one of Snapchat's weak spots. To boot, DSTRUX says the image you upload to its servers is deleted and overwritten when the time limit is hit, so there's no chance of it eventually making its way out in the case of a data breach, or via a request from the National Security Agency.
Confide lets you send written messages to a phone number or email with the tagline you can go "off the record with self-destructing messages." Recipients read your message on their smartphone by swiping their finger across it. The text appears as they do so, and then vanishes. Like DSTRUX, Confide claims its technology prevents your message from being captured in a screenshot or forwarded. And though the company doesn't come right out and say messages are deleted from their servers, the company does say, "After messages are read once, they disappear."
Self-destructing smartphones are already here, and now we have self-destructing images and written messages. In an age of increasing concerns about online privacy, it's an idea whose time has come, though that still doesn't necessarily make sharing that shot of you passed out in your neighbors’ bushes a good idea.
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