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
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
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:
said that while social network users currently have the ability to
delete photos from sites like Facebook, most ‘don’t get round to it’.
Facebook users, for example, are passive users,’ he said.
go on, they put on a lot of private information and almost never come
back on or they forget their password.
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.’”
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.
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.
did a good job of encapsulating
X-pire’s significance (and flaws):
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.
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.
Follow the author of this article,
Neal Ungerleider, on