That proposal is part of a patent application extension filed last week by AT&T, which has proposed a "method, system and apparatus for providing self-destructing electronic mail messages."
AT&T's play is that emails are ill-suited to safeguarding sensitive data. "Conventional e-mail systems may also be inappropriate for sending confidential or proprietary information because these systems do not allow the sender of an e-mail message to control the lifespan of the e-mail message," according to the patent application. "E-mail messages may, therefore, languish in a recipient's e-mail 'in-box' or on an e-mail server computer for months or even years." Furthermore, while some systems do allow a sender to request a deletion date for emails, "an e-mail sender cannot be certain that a sent e-mail message containing time sensitive information will ever be deleted," it said.
The heart of AT&T's proposal involves email clients and servers that are designed to ensure that messages can be set to self-destruct at a designated time. The patent application is an extension of a similar patent filed by the same three researchers in 2002, which was issued in 2008.
[ Are privacy worries much ado about nothing? See Online Privacy: We Just Don't Care. ]
According to the patent application, "when a self-destructing e-mail message is received, the destruction date associated with the e-mail message is identified and the message is destroyed at the specified time." That time could be a specific date and time, a preset countdown that starts when the message is read, or the message could be deleted as soon as it's been read and closed.
Users would also be able to restrict how the email's contents could be used. "The e-mail client application may prevent operations from being performed on self-destructing e-mail messages such as printing, forwarding, saving, moving or other types of operations for duplicating the content of the e-mail message," according to the patent application.
Of course, such a system wouldn't prevent a user from performing a screen capture of the email message. Or if some type of technological restriction was put in place on that technology -- which is built into operating systems -- users could still take a photograph of the screen with a smartphone. Then again, if the email system was deployed in a controlled environment, such as a facility designed to handle classified material, smartphones and other recording devices could be prohibited.