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Making Permanent Digital Records Not So Permanent

The Internet is forever — and so are texts, tweets and Facebook updates — but a startup has big ambitions to bring privacy and impermanence to online communication. The company, called Wickr, lets users decide how long a message lives.

The people behind Wickr found inspiration in 1960s-era TV and messages that self-destructed. "I think everybody who's watched Mission Impossible has always wanted self-destructing messages," says co-founder Nico Sell.

The Wickr iPhone app allows users to create self-destructing messages.
/ Wickr
The Wickr iPhone app allows users to create self-destructing messages.

Its app works like this: You create a text — picture, voice or video — and you set a time for how long you want that message to live. Then you send it to the other person. The timer starts the second they open the message.

When the timer hits zero — Boom! — the message self-destructs. There is no puff of smoke, but all digital traces of that communication are gone. The app is free. Wickr plans eventually to make money by charging for a version with a few more features, but the basic security will always be the same.

"We've taken some really complex encryption technologies and utilized the mobile phone to make it easy for everybody to use at the touch of a button," Sell says.

The message you send on Wickr can last for as little as a second or as long as six days. Only the recipient's device can read it, and you, the sender, control how long that one single copy will last.

Fred Cate, a law professor and director of the Center of Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, says everything we do, "especially with a device like a cellphone, is going to create a digital record."

"That record will be held by a third party, and that third party will keep that record forever — for my lifetime and beyond," Cate says.

That is a historic change, he says. Courts give you very limited privacy protections if you share anything about yourself with a third party. The cost of storing data — for those third parties that collect it — has fallen to almost nothing, and companies like Facebook and Google have discovered there are fortunes to be had by mining information they collect about all of us.

That, says Cate, gives them an enormous incentive to build detailed digital profiles of virtually everyone. And we can't delete them.

"There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about this idea that you ought to be able to sort of overcome your past — you shouldn't be saddled with the digital records that you created when you were 14 and 15," Cate says. "We've all sent intemperate emails we wish would have disappeared."

But Cate says we also have come to rely on our own digital permanent records in hundreds of little ways. Just ask yourself: When was the last time you looked up an old email in your inbox?

The Wickr app, says Sell, puts users in control of their own communication — not companies or governments.

"We should have built it this way from the ground up in the beginning," she says. "But we didn't, so we're going to change it now."

Wickr's founders hope you'll eventually be able to use their app on top of other platforms like email or even to make phone calls. And Sell says one day she wants to leave posts on Facebook that will self-destruct.

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Steve Henn
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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