A German company has come up with a solution for long-forgotten embarrassing pictures on social networking sites. But frankly it’s hard to see what difference it will make.
The thinking behind X-Pire is not to stop pictures getting online in the first place, but to deal with the way people’s attitude to privacy changes over time. For example, that picture from Spring Break might not look so funny when you come to apply for an office job, and the Presidential candidates of 2048 will probably find muckrakers trawling their old MySpace accounts through web archive services.
The system, developed by Saarland University’s Information Security and Cryptography department, allows users to create an encrypted copy of an image that includes an expiry date. When somebody attempts to view the image, it will only be unlocked if the expiry date hasn’t yet passed.
Sounds great in theory, but there are several major practical issues why it doesn’t seem likely to catch on.
From a purely technical standpoint, the pictures have been tested as working in Facebook and Flickr. However, whatever the site, they can only be viewed by people who install an add-on for their browser (which is currently Firefox-exclusive.) Personally I probably couldn’t be bothered installing an add-on just to see a picture, and that’s assuming I didn’t just dismiss it as a malware attempt.
The other main problem is that there seems to be a mismatch between how you use the service and who would use the service. Users must set a date for expiry, then pay a 2 euro (approx $2.70) monthly fee to have the ability to encrypt new pictures. (Previously uploaded pictures stay encrypted even after the user stops subscribing.)
I’m not doubting there are plenty of people who put pictures online with no thought that they might one day wish they hadn’t. But surely the type of people who’d be prepared to think up an expiry date and pay for the service are the same ones who’d put some thought into what’s appropriate to upload in the first place?
(And yes, that’s me on the right, circa 1989.)