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Artist's conception of a digital vault.

Jonathan Zittrain at Harvard is trying to develop a sort of cryptographic time capsule.

Credit: Getty Images

A decade ago, dozens of former fighters from Northern Ireland's Troubles gave interviews for the Belfast Project oral history project on the understanding the recordings of the interviews would not be made public until after their deaths. However, last year Boston College was forced to turn over some of the recordings to Northern Ireland's police service as part of an investigation into a murder.

The incident inspired Jonathan Zittrain, director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, to develop a sort of cryptographic time capsule. Zittrain says valuable items such as papers and personal correspondence often are donated with the understanding they will be withheld for a certain period of time and, with the help of a recently awarded $35,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, he is trying to develop a cryptographic means of keeping those promises.

However, Zittrain does not want to make the material irrevocably inaccessible until the appointed time, so he is pursuing what he calls a "bank and trust" model in which the files are encrypted and their key is broken into several fragments, which are entrusted to a library or lawyer in different jurisdictions with instructions to hand them back at a specified time.

Zittrain hopes to have a prototype service up and running within nine months.

From The Economist
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