• 06/27/2013
    11:25 AM
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This Email Will Self-Destruct: AT&T Seeks Patent

Demand for self-deleting messages is on the rise, as demonstrated by Snapchat's $800 million valuation and AT&T's related patent filing.

While AT&T's patent application appears to be geared to the business set, other companies are already selling similar tools for consumers. Snapchat, for example, allows users to set a photo to be viewable for up to 10 seconds, and the sender gets notified if the recipient attempts to perform a screen grab. The service, which works on iOS and Android devices, now moves more than 150 million photos in a single day, compared to the 40 million photographs Instagram sees daily, though Facebook's Snapchat clone, Poke, appears to lag behind.

Snapchat reportedly sports a predominantly teenage user base, which has drawn predictable cries that the service is merely a front for sending dirty messages, aka sexting. But Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel has dismissed that criticism, telling TechCrunch: "I'm not convinced that the whole sexting thing is as big as the media makes it out to be." Regardless, Snapchat is currently valued at $800 million, the Guardian reported Wednesday.

In a statement, Snapchat investor Dennis Phelps of IVP said that one of the reasons his firm decided to invest in Snapchat was because fleeting messages offer a new way of communicating. "The temporary nature of the photo or video often creates a sense of excitement and an urgency of consumption that is rare in this era of information overload," he said.

Competing services, such as Wickr, allow any type of multimedia message to be encrypted and set to self-destruct, as well as to communicate anonymously -- useful for journalists working with anonymous sources.

But Derek Schueren, general manager of information access and governance at Recommind, told Byte that such services might expose businesses to legal liabilities, if they didn't retain information required for responding to lawsuits, patent requests or per regulatory requirements. "You have an obligation [to retain data] if there's a possibility of litigation," he said, with that obligation extending not just to email but other business communications.

Furthermore, message-deletion services may promise more security than they actually provide. Richard Hickman of Decipher Forensics reported in April that by using AccessData's Forensic Toolkit on a Samsung Galaxy S3 -- which runs Android -- with Snapchat installed, he'd been able to restore supposedly deleted "snaps." All that was required was removing the ".nomedia" extension appended to the end of an images marked for deletion.

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