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Burn After Reading: Snapchat, Ephemerality & VPN

Kent Roberts
by Atlantic.Net (80posts) under VPS Hosting

This report looks at the issues of self-deleting content and privacy, via the following sections:

  • The staying power of ephemerality (WSJ)
  • Uncle Sam’s giant funnel (WSJ)
  • VPN for privacy (Forbes).

The staying power of ephemerality

We truly want to have it both ways online. We want full access to everything that the Internet has to offer, but we don’t want to be abused. Two of the best ways to avoid getting abused are for people to not know who we are and for certain sensitive content to destroy itself after a window of time.

Probably all of us would rather our IP addresses be screened than not. If anything, you might want to show your IP address on certain sites as needed, but there is no reason to standardly stroll around the web with any identifying data exposed. Enter the virtual private network, growing in popularity as described below.

Beyond VPNs, though, many people desire the ability to send a message or photo and know that it will not exist “forever,” the general sense of how long Internet data lasts.

As Ben Zimmer notes in the Wall Street Journal, it has become possible to limit the amount of time the data exists via applications such as Snapchat, Mirage, and Frankly. Ben argues that the interest in data time limits through Snapchat and its rival “ephemeral messaging” environments has shown the reemergence of the concept of ephemerality.

Text messages, images, and videos are all removed from the web soon after sharing with another party. Just as special agents might be instructed to “burn after reading” a top-secret document they have been sent, these apps burn your communication automatically as soon as it has been “used.” As Ben notes, “Communication can be kept secret if no electronic data trail is left behind.”

The breach of Sony Pictures, purportedly by North Korea (a nation that South Korea claims to have 5900 Internet-focused military personnel), drives us further toward the notion of ephemerality as we all realize how perilous our digital footprint really is.

This Sony incident is especially poignant regarding ephemerality because Evan Spiegel, who cofounded Snapchat, became pulled into the mire through the publication of his confidential emails back and forth with Sony’s Michael Lynton. The messages contained specific information about the Snapchat trajectory, and their revelation sacrificed competitive advantage.

The so-called ephemeral communications that go through Snapchat can last for 10 seconds or even less. The concept of ephemerality used to be a bit more long-lived: its root word, the Latin ephemerus, was used in medieval medicine to denote a 24-hour fever, called a febris ephemera.

Ephemerality was then applied to animals that lived (at least in their mature forms) for extraordinarily brief periods, such as the adult phase of mayflies. Similarly, the term ephemeral was attached to certain plants and streams.

From the 1600s on, ephemerality was used to denote anything temporary that would not be around for long. Ephemeral publications such as pamphlets typically aren’t saved in libraries or museums but disappear with time instead.

Uncle Sam’s giant funnel

We also have tended to think of digital data as something that is throwaway and only represents a single moment in time, but our expectations have changed: it is automatically measured and quantified, and it often represents interaction rather than simply presentation: “We increasingly expect that even the most fleeting of messages may end up stored somewhere,” writes Ben, “in the virtual server space of ‘the cloud.’”

The desire for ephemeral forms of communication has grown more intense as it became clear from the Edward Snowden leak that the NSA is collecting and assessing a mind-boggling amount of data related to everyone. Will our private messages be “funneled into massive data centers”? It’s beginning to seem naïve to think the government is not packing away our web trails.

VPN for privacy

No one wants someone to watch their every move. It’s like someone is reading over our shoulders. Clearly, we aren’t just talking about the government. The same is true of cyber criminals. The same is true of marketers, sometimes, as well: many would just as soon harass us as provide us real value. Why should they get our information for free?

General privacy online is best accomplished through a VPN – the acronym for virtual private network – as established by Amadou Diallo of Forbes. When you set up a VPN, you no longer go directly to the Web and operate online primarily through plain text (with the exception of HTTPS sites secured with SSL certificates). Instead, you access the virtual private network, which encrypts everything you do online.

The one problem with VPNs is that they can quickly get expensive. However, it’s extraordinarily easy and affordable to set one up yourself on your own cloud server. Get Linux cloud server hosting and install OpenVPN or an alternative of your choice. Atlantic.Net also offers VPS hosting solutions.

By Kent Roberts


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