We've all sent electronic messages we wish we hadn't. No matter how many reminders we get that e-mail lasts forever—and that Big Brother in one form or another is reading our dispatches (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/25/06, "Is My Boss Reading My Personal E-mail?")—we're somehow unable to resist the urge to dash off ill-considered missives. And as underscored by recent scandals surrounding public officials, sometimes electronic correspondence can come back to haunt you (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/10/06, "E-Mail Is Forever").
A company called Void Communications has come up with a way to minimize the damage that can be caused by those better-left-unsent e-mails. Unveiled in September, VaporStream is a Web-based tool that lets users communicate privately, ensuring that messages can't be found or traced. And at $40 a year, it's well worth considering for anyone afflicted by foot-in-outbox disease.
Here's a brief description of how it works. VaporStream feels like a cross between e-mail and instant messaging—sprinkled with some cool 007-like features. Messages are sent and received through the secure VaporStream Web site and set up in such a way that neither the sender's nor the recipient's names ever show up at the same time as the message.
Enter a recipient's e-mail address and it disappears before you even start typing the "stream," or body, of the message. Then, when the recipient calls up the message by clicking on a sender in the "Intray," the name and e-mail address vanish before the body appears, ensuring that they can never be linked to each other. And a message can only be viewed once. The company says no record of the message remains on either computer or on the server.
Using VaporStream is fun. It has a crisp, easy, Web-based interface and I liked sending mock-cryptic messages ("The rooster crows at dawn."). The makers say VaporStream is aimed mainly at the corporate market, designed so "an employee can communicate openly and freely without putting the company or himself at risk." Void Communications says discussions on delicate issues such as human resources, medical matters, and intellectual property are well suited to the program.
Keeping It in the Closet
But many users may find its cloak-and-dagger features a little too restrictive. A message cannot be copied, pasted, forwarded, or edited. VaporStream, it should be noted, is not a substitute for e-mail. Indeed, it has to be checked from time to time or left open to see if new messages have arrived. You won't get a separate e-mail message when a VaporStream pops up—that would leave a trail.
The company describes VaporStream as a way to bring the candor of conversations or phone calls online. To me it seems more like the candor of a secret meeting in a closet—telephones leave records, too.