If there’s one innovation that has the potential to shake up politics in 2014, it’s the arrival of new “erasable Internet” technologies such as Snapchat. Yes, the same technology that teenagers and college students use to exchange selfies might one day be used by politicians and campaign managers to send e-mails to each other that disappear after reading.
There’s obviously a market for such a technology. Case in point: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s embarrassing bridge scandal, in which campaign aides were found to be plotting political retaliation against a rival via Gmail. Reading through the series of Gmails between Bridget Anne Kelley and David Wildstein, it’s easy to imagine an alternate scenario of the two of them giggling and swapping photos of the bridge mayhem on the George Washington Bridge via Snapchat. Self-destructing photos would have at least avoided the embarrassing e-mail paper trail (e.g. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee… Got it”), complicating any efforts to find out who was responsible for the scandal.
The idea of a Snapchat for Gmail might not be as far-fetched as it seems. Earlier this month, Jena McGregor of the Washington Post looked at Confide, a new company which promises to bring “off-the-record mobile messaging” into the world of white-collar office workers. A smartphone app such as Confide (already available for iPhone) could eventually replace the office water cooler, enabling co-workers to trade snarky asides about the boss. Hiring managers could trade candid comments about job candidates. With access to “confidential messages that self-destruct,” executives could feel comfortable discussing issues related to double-top-secret corporate strategy. (And politicians would have a way to plan, ahem, extracurricular campaign activities.)
Or what about SecretInk, a “self-destructing messaging service,” which launched in November 2013? It’s easy to imagine the company attracting the attention of venture capitalists eager to recreate the multi-billion-dollar valuation of a Snapchat by extending the same technology into the enterprise market. After signing up for SecretLink, users can choose to send an email or SMS that “self-destructs” after reading, all without the need to actually join any kind of social network.
Of course, the ability to send messages that self-destruct raises a host of moral, ethical and legal issues. It would seem to hint at a world in which Chris Christie-style bridge scandals are more, not less, likely. It would seem to open the door to hiring decisions based on factors that are unethical, and quite frankly, illegal. It would encourage office environments of cliques, each trading poisonous barbs about one other. And it would empower politicians to think that they were somehow above the law.
On top of that, there’s no guarantee that such a service would actually be secure. Consider that Snapchat has been reeling from revelations that hackers were able to access user identities and phone numbers. Even before these hacker allegations, there were cases of users taking screenshots from Snapchat and passing them around. That would be the ultimate in political payback — taking a screenshot of a text message — and then handing it over to political rivals.
Yet, there’s no doubt that we’re witnessing a sea change in how we use and think about the Web. We’re aware, more than ever, of the potential privacy implications of signing up for social networks. Internet users are aware that anything they do or say online might surface again in the future. No wonder the race is on to create new Internet tools that protect personal privacy. Especially after the NSA scandal, we no longer assume that nobody’s watching.
In hindsight, it appears that many of Chris Christie’s problems could have been prevented if his staffers had access to erasable Internet technologies. Just glancing through the long trail of e-mails between Christie’s two campaign aides, it appears that the most dangerous comments (“Should I be smiling?”) were just a few words each, and thrown around like careless late-night text messages between teenagers. Won’t other politicians take note of this latest scandal, and begin to search out loopholes to the current system, in which Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter seem intent on recording your every move?
Maybe the idea of a Snapchat for politicians isn’t so crazy after all, if the choice is between a political campaign that self-destructs or a bunch of personal text messages that self-destruct upon reading.