Self-Destructing Text Messages Debut in Britain

A U.K. company has brought to life the self-destructing messages of "Mission Impossible."

Staellium UK Ltd. has introduced StealthText, a service available via SMS (Short Message Service) and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones, which enables senders to punch in a self-destruct code when they send text messages.

The recipient receives a text message showing the sender's name and providing a link to the message.

Once opened, the message disappears after about 40 seconds.

Carole Barnum, CEO and cofounder of the company, told Ziff Davis Internet News that the idea was inspired by living through the Sep 11 terrorist attacks on New York.

"Certainly, as the world is becoming more dangerous, I think we need to cherish what we have, which is the communication that we have with people we love, [whom] we want to protect," she said, adding, "information is being misused."

Staellium's founders originally conceived of the service as catering to the needs of business executives dealing with sensitive information, as well as those of celebrities who are up to no good.

In keeping with its original intent, the company has received inquiries from a diverse range of financial services firms and celebrity agents.

It has also attracted interest from defense and intelligence agencies, Barnum said, including, reportedly, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence.

"The technology behind StealthText is derived from military technology, so the comparisons with 'Mission Impossible' are justified," Barnum is quoted as saying in a news release.

Self-destructing text messages are just a start, however — the company plans to tackle self-destruction in other venues as well, starting in the spring.

"The ability to send a self-destruct message has massive benefits for people from all walks of life, from everyday mobile users, through to celebrities and business people, but this is just the start," Barnum said in the release. "In spring 2006 we will be launching new services such as self-destruct e-mail, voice and picture messages, so ultimately no one will ever have to worry about their messages or pictures ending up in the wrong hands ever again."

Both Staellium and the European Union's lawmakers are aware that the service can be used for illicit purposes. To comply with data retention laws, the service retains a paper trail and log that remains on a protected, secure server for between six months and two years before being deleted.

Staellium is also sensitive to the fact that the technology can be misused by children. The law now dictates that the legal age to use wireless access services is 16, but Staellium puts the age limit higher, with a minimum age of 18 being required to use its service.

The service is available around the world to users of UK SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards only. It will be available across Europe, the United States and Asia early next year.

To sign up for the service, users simply text "STEALTH" to 80880 to receive a link that allows them to download a StealthText applet via a WAP connection. To unsubscribe from the service, the user texts "STOP" to the same number.

Recipients don't require downloaded applets to receive StealthTexts. Recipients can reply with StealthTexts, creating a private channel of two-way communication. If they choose not to reply with StealthText, recipients can still receive text notifications of incoming StealthTexts.

Critics point out that the self-destructing messages can easily be subverted by taking screenshots before the message disappears.

Barnum ceded the point, but she said businesspeople still like the service for its ease of use and low cost.

"A lot of people are trying to see how they can contravene the way the service has been set up," Barnum told Ziff Davis Internet News. "But when you go on the Web and the page has expired, there aren't a lot of solutions for people to resurrect a page. You can sit back and have a camera and take a snapshot and do these kinds of things, but when people are [sending sensitive business information], they like the ease of the service and the fact that it's inexpensive. They like that it works and that it's reliable, and that we can deploy it around the world.

"We're not in the business of looking for hackers and [seeing] what they'll try to do," she said. "This service has been tested, it's been tried and it's reliable."

The StealthText service fee is 50 British pence (about 80 cents) per text, and the service is sold by bundles of 10 for five pounds, about eight dollars. Staellium is also offering two free self-destructing messages, sold in bundles of 12 texts for the price of 10.

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