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New email could confound law enforcement

A novel messaging service that lets people send heavily encrypted email directly to each other could be a boon for privacy advocates but a headache for law enforcement authorities.

A start-up is set to release a novel messaging service that lets people send heavily encrypted email directly to each other, a development that could be a boon for privacy advocates but a headache for law enforcement authorities.

AbsoluteFuture.com of Bellvue, Wash., has dubbed its service "SafeMessage," describing it as a "direct messaging" service that transmits messages from party to party without the use of a central server.

This distinction is significant because email, which always passes through mail servers, leaves a trace copy of itself that can be subpoenaed, read or otherwise accessed by unauthorized readers.

Besides bypassing a central server, the messages are heavily encrypted and are programmed to be automatically erased after a period of time designated by the sender. The encryption not only prevents outsiders from reading the message, but also limits the message recipient's ability to forward, cut and paste, or print the message.

"(Email) leaves a permanent trail," said CEO Graham Andrews. "Not only on your computer and the receiver's computer, but also three or four servers in the middle."

Whether or not direct messaging can strip away all traces of a document sent over the Internet is unclear, as the system does not do away with the need for an Internet service provider to allow parties to share files.

"It's certainly going to pass through the server that connects you to the Internet and the server that connects the recipient to the Internet, but it will not pass through the typical mail servers," said Tony McNamara, AbsoluteFuture's chief technology officer.

Amid growing concerns about privacy on the Internet, more people are inquiring about the secure transfer of data online, especially in instances of financial and banking data. AbsoluteFuture joins a growing list of companies that are responding to this market need with encrypted email services.

Rival products include HushMail, ZixMail, Disappearing Inc. and Authentica.

Unlike AbsoluteFuture, however, these services use ordinary email delivery systems that are prone to online eavesdropping and may leave trace copies behind in the computers used to carry them. AbsoluteFuture believes it has found a solution to this problem by harnessing technology known as peer-to-peer networking, which connects personal computers directly, without the need for a central server to route file transfers.

Meta Group analyst David Thompson calls the market for peer-to-peer or encrypted messaging nascent. "People are just starting to realize that this kind of thing is even possible," he said.

Peer-to-peer technology gained widespread notice after file-swapping company Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for allegedly facilitating the transfer of copyrighted material.

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Graham Andrews
CEO of AbsoluteFuture 
Discussing the intentions for SafeMessage. 
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Joyce Graff
Research Director for Email Services, Gartner Group 
The advantages and pitfalls of email shredding services. 
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While SafeMessage does not present any copyright violation, it could undermine the efforts of law enforcement agencies that sift and subpoena email messages to catch criminals. Most notably, privacy advocates have called attention to the FBI's Carnivore program, which is installed at ISPs and scans massive amounts of email to track messages sent by people under investigation.

AbsoluteFuture's SafeMessage system would potentially allow people to operate below this radar screen.

AbsoluteFuture said it is marketing its product primarily to corporate clients. "We believe this should be available to individual consumers, too, but we're not really in a position to handle that, so we are going to go the route of licensing to ISPs," Graham said. "We are very close to signing up several resellers."

The company said SafeMessage is already being tested by a number of large corporate clients including a major oil trading company in Moscow, a large accounting firm, and a couple of stockbrokers.

To use SafeMessage, a person signs on to the program with an ID and password, similarly to an email client. When typing the recipient, the person sends the contact to AbsoluteFuture's server, which locates the recipient online and allows the sender to send the message directly to the recipient.

The message is encrypted before it leaves the sender's computer, and the decoder key is destroyed. If the recipient is not online, the sender must send the message to AbsoluteFuture's server, which will hold the message until the recipient logs on or the message times out.

"In one sense this is slightly less secure because we're looking after it," Graham said. "But we don't have the key to get at it. Even if there was a court order for the message, it is highly encrypted. We'd say, 'OK, go ahead try to open it.'"

Meta Group's Thompson said that while the system sounds secure, he is not convinced that it is foolproof. He said that during the period of time before the message is destroyed, keys exist that could unscramble the encryption.

"At some point everything is gone," he said. "But there is some window in there in which there is still exposure."