NEW YORK (AP) -- In the offline world, it can be quite a challenge to retrieve and destroy confidential documents from a business deal gone sour or a top-secret project that involved outside help.
The options boil down to either trusting your former business partner -- or resorting to illegal breaking and entering.
But e-mail is changing those rules, thanks to virtual shredding. Senders can destroy messages either remotely or automatically, without a recipient's consent or cooperation.
And that gives senders unprecedented control over what they distribute.
Though usage of the technology is still relatively low, interest is growing, thanks in part to new federal laws governing privacy of health care and financial data.
Interest has also been spurred by the antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., in which damaging e-mail memos from Bill Gates and other senior executives became the government's key evidence.
The recent shredding of electronic documents by Enron's outside accountants, along with the growing use of e-mail in business, may prompt even more thinking about how to preserve and destroy records without running afoul of the law.
Authentica Inc. and other companies make online shredding systems that scramble e-mail messages and limit access to the software key needed to decrypt them. To make messages "disappear," access to the key is withdrawn after a given time.
Software company Peregrine Systems Inc. bought Authentica's system about nine months ago. Senior executives use it to send e- mail to one another and to the company's board of directors.
"Today's business market is so competitive, we want to make sure that communications that were meant to stay confidential and secure remain that way," said Doug Hampshire, Peregrine's systems administrator.
The trouble with e-mail is its persistence.
Hitting the delete key only removes a message from the computer's digital index, and forensics experts can often retrieve it later. Even if it's gone from a recipient's hard disk, plenty of copies exist elsewhere B on e-mail servers used in transit, on backup tapes kept for years.
Or perhaps an employee checked e-mail from home or forwarded it to a personal Hotmail account. Copies would then reside on the home computer or at Microsoft, which runs Hotmail.
Without systematic procedures for purging old messages, e-mail may linger for years.
Computer backup systems were generally developed for disaster recovery -- not with lawsuits and investigations in mind, said Kristin Nimsger, legal consultant for Ontrack Data International Inc., a data-recovery company.
In addition to Authentica, Atabok Inc., SafeMessage Americans Inc. and Omniva Policy Systems have systems designed to keep embarrassing or incriminating messages from …