In search of: A Delete key for email

Lawsuits and hackers often target email archives, but a business based on making messages disappear still faces tough odds

If lawyers or hackers got hold of your company's email messages, what sort of picture would emerge? For any organization involved in legal proceedings, this is not an idle question, and for companies targeted by hackers, the leak of corporate emails can result in a public relations disaster. The recent publication by members of Anonymous of the email spools of HBGary executives, for example, has spotlighted questionable activities on the part of the company and its federal consulting arm.

No wonder a startup like VaporStream believes there will be demand for its services. The company has created a subscription service that retains a single copy of an email, does not write the message to any hard drive, and -- once the recipient opens the message -- deletes it forever.

"With traditional email or IMs, there are copies of message all over the place," says Jack Hembrough, CEO of VaporStream. "The recipient could forward it on. With VaporStream, there is one copy of the message and it only travels through our machines."

When displaying the message, the company shows the To and From fields on a different page. Thus, a screenshot would not capture the entire email message, which provides some amount of deniability, Hembrough claims.

While Anonymous may disagree, having confidence that your email messages will remain private has enormous social benefits. In his seminal paper published in 2000, "In Defense of the Delete Key" [PDF], Judge James M. Rosenbaum argues that -- without the ability to speak freely -- the exchange of ideas will disappear.

"The marketplace of ideas and expression is impoverished and demeaned when it is deprived of ideas which may be discussed and tested, and ultimately, perhaps, rejected," Rosenbaum wrote. "Knowledge of the computer’s awesome power to always remember, and never forget, a bad idea once expressed erodes and endangers this powerful concept."

In essence, this is what VaporStream is trying to provide, says Hembrough: "This is a way of having that same open private conversation without having to be on the line all the time -- that is where the real value is."

It's a hard road, however. Other companies have tried to make a business of providing a Delete key for email. In 2000, startup Disappearing Inc. touted its own service for allowing email to be subject to deletion and retention policies. Yet, soon after, the company's focus changed from deleting email to helping companies create and maintain policies for email archival and deletion, a segment known as e-discovery. In 2001, the company changed its name to Omniva Policy Systems, was bought by Liquid Machines in 2004, which was then bought by Check Point Software in 2010.

Now, with a greater awareness of the dangers of everlasting email and the long memory of the Internet, perhaps it is time for the Internet to forget.

Or as Judge Rosenbaum -- now retired -- says: "In some ways, the greater risk in the preservation and discovery of computerized material lies in the knowledge that things will not be expressed, and ideas will not be exchanged, out of a pernicious -- but valid -- fear that their mere expression will be judged tantamount to the act.

"This is dangerous indeed."

This story, "In search of: A Delete key for email," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.