Suppose you didn’t have to worry that the sensitive email you’re writing might land on the desk of your competitor. Or in the file of his company’s lawyer. Or on the front page of The New York Times.
There’s a service that offers this peace of mind—not in the future but right now. You sit at your computer and write a message much as you already do every day. But the program you use is special. When you receive a message, you click on it and before you can even read the text, the name, date, and subject disappear. Then you open the message, and when you reply or exit, it, too, vanishes. It’s the Cheshire cat of electronic communications.
The service is offered by a company called Vaporstream. And it’s a pretty sweet product. Vaporstream swears that when messages disappear, they can’t be retrieved or traced by anyone. You can’t even forward them.
But there are a few catches. You can only use it to communicate with other subscribers (typically, top executives at your company). And it doesn’t come cheap. It can run your company as much as $25,000 a month (though that could cover as many as 50 employees).
Who uses it? The privately held company, which is based in Chicago and was incorporated in 2006, has 163 corporate clients, according to its CEO, Jason Howe. Most are in the Fortune 1000, Howe says. Different branches of government subscribe. It’s big in military communications, for instance, and health care—doctor-to-doctor communications, that sort of thing, he adds.
But Howe doesn’t go around sharing the list. After all, he points out, the company tagline is: "Vaporstream is in the business of making your business no one’s business."
He is, however, happy to talk about why it’s unique. Other supposedly secure communications recently received some bad press. Snapchat’s photo-sharing app has been a hit with teens. They can share daring photos of themselves that disappear in seconds. Or so they believed. "You can take screen shots, you can save them on a drive," Mat Honan, a senior editor at Wired magazine, told ABC News. "There are all kinds of ways to save these images."
Vaporstream is fundamentally different. "Ours is not a consumer application," Howe says. "It’s an enterprise application." And the technology is different. "We can’t be intercepted," claims the CEO. "No one would be able to hack it with a man-in-the-middle attack." That’s because it isn’t stored on some distant server. It’s essentially real-time communication, with layers of encryption.
One client willing to talk about Vaporstream is William Mahone, vice president and general counsel of the private equity firm Interlaken Capital Inc. Mahone’s company has also invested in Vaporstream, and he sits on its board. Using the service couldn’t be easier, he says: "It’s effectively the equivalent of a phone call." He and select colleagues can talk about companies, investments, strategies—any sensitive topic. And he doesn’t have to watch his words.
What about the legal implications? That subject came up in a panel discussion in which Howe and Mahone participated in January at LegalTech (a conference run by ALM, which owns Corporate Counsel). Couldn’t people misuse the technology to communicate inappropriate information?
Panelist Andrew Peck, a magistrate judge at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said he worried that it could be used for insider trading tips. There’s no case law yet, he said, "but at some point there will be." Someday, he speculated, there may be an email that suggests that the sender and receiver continue their conversation on Vaporstream, just as there have been emails introduced into evidence that say "let’s continue on the phone." And it won’t look good to a jury, he said.
Howe quickly acknowledged at the conference that all technology, including the telephone, can be improperly used. "Our noble intent is to increase the frequency and effectiveness of communication," he said, adding: "Bad people are going to do bad things with good ­technology."
Still, as Howe acknowledged in an interview, big companies worry about appearances. They wonder how a judge or jury might react if they learned executives were using Vaporstream. "They’re going to think we’re up to no good and throw the book at us," says Howe, putting their fear into words. To date, Howe knows of 31 cases in which a lawyer tried to introduce such evidence into court. None succeeded, he says.
But the important point, he adds, is that Vaporstream takes its responsibilities seriously. "We do everything we can to prevent adverse use," he says. It starts with client selection. "There are certain people that we would not let use our product," Howe emphasizes, adding that they turned down Wikileaks.
When they sign a new client, they work with general counsel to help the company revise its code of conduct to spell out who is authorized to use the service—and to articulate appropriate and inappropriate uses. The service isn’t designed for people like David Petraeus, Howe told the crowd at LegalTech, referring to the former Central Intelligence Agency director who was brought down by emails that revealed his extramarital affair.
Those communications—in any form—weren’t in his code of conduct, Howe said.
See also: "Bombs Away: Erasing Information in the Big Data Era," Law Technology News, April 2013.