A smart entrepreneur sees an opportunity in self-destructing e-mail

R. Fink

The Rat was busy tinkering in his burrow, looking for new ways to boost sideline revenues from service calls generated by his rMachines Inc. free PCs, when he got an encrypted satellite wristwatch call from his newest investors'a group he's calling the Langley Investment Club.

'We have an operational need that could turn into a real business opportunity for you,'' said the disguised voice emanating from the Mickey Mouse watch.

'Three words,'' continued the disembodied voice of adventure capitalism. 'Self-destructing e-mail.''

'Technically, that's not three words, but I get the idea. Isn't there a company already in that business?''

'Yeah, there's a start-up that calls its e-mail self-destructing, but it's only an expiring encryption key. We want something that works a little more thoroughly.''

'Oh,'' the whiskered one said. 'Like, 'Good morning, Mr. Phelps. This e-mail will self-destruct in 10 seconds.' '

'Exactly. We don't want anybody cutting and pasting our e-mail. We want the hard drive wiped and the monitor smoked. That means single-use, disposable PCs. When we thought of disposable PCs, we thought of you.''

'I'm flattered, I think,'' the wire-biter re-sponded. 'Sure, I can build PCs like that, and I'm sure you've got the money to buy them in quantity. But why not give the opportunity to, say, Unisys Corp.? Some of their Desktop III systems self-destructed even without having the requirement in the specs, and they lost money on every system they sold to the Defense Department.''

'Well, sir, haven't you been looking for ways to raise your service call rate?''

Suddenly, the devious brilliance of the suggestion sprang into the Rat's mind. 'Of course. I could send e-mails to customers that actually cause service calls. Hey, you guys are good at this.''

'We'll assume it's a go, then,'' the remote in-vestor rasped. 'Put a masking tape X on your office window when you've got a prototype ready to test.''

Back at the agency command bunker, the Rat and his acolytes went to work on another kind of self-destructing e-mail: the hasty, career-ending flame. Recently, abrupt replies to policy memos had resulted in three irate users being reassigned to a cattle mutilation task force in Helena, Mont.

Although the Rat didn't mind having fewer bodies to support, it would mean having to break in fresh plebes when the billets were refilled. A few days of prevention were worth a whole training budget. Not to mention that intercepting the delivery of hasty inflammatory missives could yield significant blackmail, er, leverage points with hotheaded users.

So the Rat Patrol built a system that could change a message's content based on its recipient. All messages sent by cubicle dwellers to corner-office dwellers would be screened by an artificial vindictiveness engine. Failed messages were converted into XML and tagged with a style sheet that replaced anything wrappered by the XML tags or with randomly selected obsequious text.

Take a whiff

The Rat's home-brew system then would automatically send a copy of the original message and the edited message back to the sender, along with a solicitation for contributions to the tech support team's coffee mess treasury. By Friday, the Rat noticed a sparkling new espresso maker in his command bunker's kitchenette.

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at

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