Mission Possible: Self-Destructing Messages and Photos

Photographs by Yuji Sakai, Eric Reichbaum; Illustration by Thomas Meimarides

This week a team of data security experts unveiled a new mobile app called Wickr. The app offers what its developers describe as “military-grade” encryption for data, but it also does something else: It allows users to make text messages, photos, and videos self-destruct. Messages sent through Wickr totally and irretrievably disappear from their recipients’ phones after a set period of time. Senders can customize the self-destruct deadline to be anything from six days down to a second.

There’s clear logic to this. After all, when an embarrassing text or photo goes public, it isn’t usually because someone has intercepted it. More often it’s because the recipient shared it or forwarded it to a few friends, each of whom forwarded it to a few of their friends, and so on to the point of infamy. An app such as Wickr is an attempt to nip the process in the bud before something awkward can blossom into virality.

“The Internet is forever!” the app’s motto reads. “Your personal data doesn’t have to be.” Its logo is a burning wick.

It’s a clever technology, as well as a manifestation of an interesting argument that some legal and internet scholars have begun to make: All information should have an expiration date. Today the default setting for data is immortality. It sits on a server somewhere unless someone actively deletes it and any copies that may have been made. There are images and texts we individually or collectively might want to preserve for posterity. These include cherished mementos for sure, but perhaps also a record of a job applicant’s long and violent criminal record. There’s lots of other stuff, though—mortifying pictures and videos, drunken texts, slanderous attacks launched by (or at) high-school nemeses—that we’d like to have disappear as soon as possible. In the non-digital world, information eventually complies with those wishes: Newspapers are published, then consigned to dusty archives; books go out of print; and negatives for incriminating photos get lost. People forget. The problem is that the Internet makes it far easier for someone years later to stumble over an incriminating bit of information from a person’s past and then restart a humiliating process.

Victor Mayer-Schönberger, a lawyer and professor at Oxford University, is one of the leading proponents of the idea that data should expire. He puts it this way in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age: “Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.”

Mayer-Schönberger and others think that the default should be reversed online to match the offline norm. The problem with the Internet’s current ability to forget, as he sees it, isn’t just that it preserves embarrassing information about people; it’s that in today’s society the information has consequences: People have been fired over Facebook posts. In a bizarre case Mayer-Schönberger relates in his book, a Canadian psychotherapist was stopped at the U.S. border, detained, and then barred from ever coming to the United States because of an old article he had written in an academic journal mentioning that he had tried LSD in the 1960s. Every high school student of history hears Santayana’s famous quote about how forgetting the past condemns us to repeat it. He’s right, of course, but not forgetting can constitute a kind of sentence, too.

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