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Digital eraser

January 12, 2011

Already know you're posting a picture to the Internet that you won't want the world to see forever? A new 'digital eraser' developed at a German university could help, but it may not save you from total embarrassment.

A hand pointing at a monitor showing rows of pictures
Removing photos from the Internet is nearly impossibleImage: dpa

Currently only a prototype, a piece of software created by a group of German researchers could help photos automatically disappear from the Internet after an amount of time determined by picture's owner.

Called X-pire, the software would let users give their pictures an expiration date after which the photo would become unrecognizable, said Michael Backes, the software's creator, and the chair for Information Security and Cryptography at Saarland University.

The software, an add-on for the Firefox Web browser, was presented Tuesday during a conference held by the German Ministry for Consumer Protection.

This is the first concrete application since the German interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, called for a "digital eraser," as part of a broader German government Internet plan unveiled in June 2010.

The X-pire logo
The X-pire software was written by a professor from Saarland University

While Web users can currently choose between putting no details of their personal life online or giving up total control of the material they post, X-pire gives users willing to pay an estimated 10 euros ($13) a month the ability to share personal pictures with the assurance that they won't necessarily always be available on the Internet, according to a Saarland University website describing the project.

No complete protection

Backes, however, admitted that neither his program nor any other on the market offers complete protection for photos posted to websites or social networks like Facebook since copies of the pictures could be made and reposted before the originals are encrypted.

"The copying and reposting of files cannot be stopped," he told the daily Tagesspigel. "But generally it's going to remain an exception. Encryption is currently the best protection as long as nothing malicious happens to the picture before its expiration date."

Data protection officials praised the project for giving the public a way to have more control over what happens to the material they post online.

"Of course, this isn't a cure-all, but it's a step in the right direction," said Johannes Caspar, head of Hamburg's data protection agency.

Montage of a hand coming out of computer monitor
Many Internet companies make a profit from users' personal informationImage: dpa

Participants at the conference pointed out the international nature of the Internet as a major online privacy problem.

"Our American colleagues have a completely different conception of privacy than we do," said Matthias Ehrlich of the Federal Association for a Digital Economy (BVDW).

Google Analytics row

That sentiment was also clear as German privacy officials on Tuesday broke off talks with Google over the company's Web statistics service.

Website owners can use the services, called Google Analytics, to track who visits their site. Google, as part of the free service, compares the visitor information to its own databases to create a more detailed profile of a site's visitors.

Caspar, who represents all 16 German state data protection agencies in talks with Google, told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the US-based Internet giant had not made good on promises to make data anonymous by deleting part of users' IP address, the number that identifies Internet connections.

Google Germany's privacy officer Per Meyerdierks said Analytics not only conformed to EU law, but was also used by German privacy commissioners. Google provides the service free, and benefits by obtaining data about web traffic.

Caspar said he would refer the issue to a conference of the state data protection commissioners to decide whether to take the issue to court to clarify the law.

Author: Sean Sinico (dpa, AFP)

Editor: Cyrus Farivar