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This company promises email that can self-destruct in five seconds

May 13, 2014
May 13, 2014

Making information truly disappear from the internet is hard. That was probably the biggest takeaway from last week’s settlement by Snapchat, which agreed to 20 years of nannying by US regulators after its ephemeral photo-sharing app turned out to be less ephemeral than it promised. However, that hasn’t stopped a proliferation of startups who want you to believe they are a newer, better Snapchat.

Dstrux, a kind of Snapchat for sending files via email or Facebook, is one of the most promising. That’s partly because it has figured out a way to stymie screenshots (one of Snapchat’s downfalls was that you could keep photos people had sent you by taking a screenshot before they disappeared), and also because it’s not making exaggerated claims. “This is a very secure and private way of sharing, but it’s the very beginning,” CEO Nathan Hecht told Quartz.

To use Dstrux, you upload an attachment to its servers, decide how long it will last before expiring, and who you’ll share it with. Your recipient will see a heavily-blurred version of the file, and be told to hold down the space bar to see it in focus. If instead she right-clicks the file, as if to try to save it, she’ll get a warning. Pressing any other keys (like the key combination for a screenshot, for instance), will deny her access to the file.

The sender, meanwhile, can see whether or not the file’s been looked at, and also revoke access before the time limit expires. As an added security measure, Dstrux never actually shares the file with the recipient; it sends her a streaming version, transmitted in much the way Netflix transmits movies.

What about the risk of a government agency seizing the data from Dstrux? The file is stored in encrypted form on Dstrux’s servers, and when it’s time for it to be deleted, the data are shredded and overwritten, the company says, so it can’t subsequently hand your information over to an intelligence agency. Not a few countries (most notably those of the EU) make it illegal to permanently delete data, but Dstrux is New York-based, and Hecht says his lawyers have researched the treaties that protect Dstrux from overseas data laws.

Of course, none of this can stop a recipient from just snapping a picture of the computer screen with a camera. It just makes it very hard to make a direct copy of a file. “The way we approach it in our minds is: ‘How much inconvenience would a person want to go through to reassemble it?’,” says Hecht.

But who would use it?

A forgetful internet is basically useful to three groups: People who want to share parts of their personal lives (and not just sexy pictures; parents may want to limit who sees photos of their kids, for instance); people who want to share intellectual property, like contracts, movie scripts, and book drafts; and bigger businesses that need to share commercially sensitive information.

In its current state, Dstrux is only really useful to the first group, because it only lets you share with one person at a time, and that pesky space-bar requirement makes it cumbersome to pore through large documents. But saucy snaps are also the thing for which Dstrux is least secure, since if you want to embarrass the sender, a smartphone shot of the computer screen is quite enough.

But Hecht says this is just a beginning: “This starts with ordinary people wanting to have more control over their lives.” He says his team is working on scaling up the service for businesses small and large. “In a few weeks, we’re introducing another option: A way of viewing text that lets you see small portions at a time without having to hold the space bar,” he says. Later in the summer, he says they’ll have an option for the very paranoid that will thwart spying software. He also has plans for mobile, and wants to expand to platforms beyond email and Facebook. One day, he hopes his product will compete with Gmail. “Email’s been boring for a long time,” he says. “We think that there’s a big opportunity to reinvent it.”

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