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Why smart people do dumb things online

Mike Elgan | Nov. 19, 2012
David Petraeus, a brilliant man, did the dumbest thing imaginable with his email. He trusted it with his secrets. Mike Elgan offers other options for keeping private things private online.

It's not that humans are dumb, but that we're single-minded. We're often unable to use the knowledge we have for our own good because when we think about one thing, we forget about other things.

The second flaw in human nature is something economists call "present bias." When the reward is now, but the risk later, we can't help but to embrace the reward and ignore the risk.

"Present bias" is why people get into crippling debt, take dangerous drugs, overeat and voluntarily do other things that cause regret. We do it because the benefit is now and the regret is later.

Email feels now, but email is forever. And so are social media and other online activities.

But they don't have to be

The benefits of self-destruction

A good rule of thumb is to only post or send something online if you would be happy to show it to your mother, children, partner and boss.

But there's a loophole. A category of free services lets you communicate everything else with very low risk.

The handiest solution is "email" that self-destructs, like the taped messages on Mission: Impossible.

The way these work is that you type your message on a website, rather than sending email. The site will send email, not with the message, but with a link.

In some cases, the services will allow the recipients to read the message once, after which time it's deleted. In others, you can set an expiration date.

The best of these are OneShar.es, Burn Note, Privnote, Destructing Message and This Message Will Self Destruct.

Note that the "Destructing Message" service has an interesting twist: It doesn't identify the sender. Of course, you can identify yourself in the message, but you don't have to. It's both temporary and anonymous. Some email services, including Gmail, may block incoming mail from Destructing Message.

There's a related type of service that's useful when you want to keep a link private. You paste your link into the service, and set the "expiration date." Then, the service creates a temporary link that leads to the real link.

Examples of this type of service include This Link Will Self Destruct or Dying Links.

Note that Dying Links is highly configurable, enabling you to specify a delayed activation, an expiration date and time, and even a maximum number of clicks before it expires. It also shortens URLs.

Sometimes you just want to show someone a picture, but you want to do it securely and privately. In that case, you might try SnapChat.

SnapChat is an iOS and Android app that lets you send pictures from your phone to a list of recipients, who can view the picture only from within the SnapChat application, and only for a maximum of 10 seconds. The sender can even choose to set the time limit to less than 10 seconds.

 

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