The German government, which has had concerns about Facebook privacy, recently commissioned a piece of software that can erase photos from Facebook and other sites after a set amount of time.
The program, called X-pire, allows users to make photos uploaded to Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, MySpace and other sites inaccessible after a pre-determined amount of time. Before a user posts a photo, they open up X-pire and assign it an electronic key valid for a set time period. Once the electronic key expires, the photo is blocked and cannot be displayed. X-pire operates on a subscription model: Users pay €24 (US$32) annually for access.
However, there is one major flaw in X-pire: third parties who save and republish photos blocked with the program can redistribute them at will. Nothing is ever truly private on the internet, and that includes photos with a built-in self-destruct sequence to protect them from bosses, teachers and other parties.
Germany already bans companies from vetting perspective employees via Facebook thanks to legislation that specifically targets the popular website.
X-pire is the creation of Michael Backes, a professor of Information Security and Cryptography at Saarland University. Backes came up with X-pire following a request from the country's Consumer Protection Ministry.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Backes all but admitted that his program is aimed at users who may not be the most computer- and security-savvy:
Backes said that while social network users currently have the ability to delete photos from sites like Facebook, most 'don't get round to it'.
'Most Facebook users, for example, are passive users,' he said.
'They go on, they put on a lot of private information and almost never come back on or they forget their password.
'The software is not designed for people who understand how to protect their data but rather for the huge mass of people who want to solve the problem at its core and not to have to think about it any more.'"
The current release of X-pire, however, is more interesting as an indicator of the increasing interest in digital privacy rather than as a usable utility. A special plug-in—only currently available for Firefox—is required to view pictures keyed through X-pire. Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari users are all out of luck.
Equally important is the fact that the ability to view encrypted pictures in Firefox is entirely dependent on X-pire's server being online. If the server crashes or goes offline for any other reason, all photos keyed through the software become unviewable.
Der Spiegel did a good job of encapsulating X-pire's significance (and flaws):
In short, Backes' system may have some value in theory, but in practice it creates work and inconvenience for users and goes against the fundamentals of an openly accessible Internet. Nor does it solve the greatest problem: the fact that it is easy to lose control of digital data and that people should think before they post photos that might come back to haunt them later. Nevertheless, Backes believes his software represents a good start.
From here, the big question is what kind of encryption schemes and security features the second-generation digital photo locks created by Backes and others will use. As Facebook and Google searches become standard operating procedure for potential supervisors, college admission personnel and others, the market demand for software that can block embarrassing pictures online will only increase.
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