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A handful of Apple engineers have applied for a software patent application (US20140047043) on the idea of adding a proprietary protocol to request new disposable email addresses automatically from an email client.

Publication Number: US20140047043

Title: Disposable Email Address Generation and Mapping to a Regular Email Account

Assignee: Apple, Inc.

The application can be seen here.

Here is the text of one of the independent claims followed by one of its dependent claims:

Claim 11. A non-transitory program storage device, readable by one or more programmable control devices, comprising instructions stored thereon for causing one or more of the programmable control devices to:

  • Allocate a disposable email address, the disposable email address independent of a non-disposable email address;
  • Associate the disposable email address with the non-disposable email address;

  • Associate a context information with the disposable email address, external to the disposable email address;

  • Associate an expiration information with the disposable email address, external to the disposable email address;

  • Receive an email message addressed to the disposable email address;

  • Rewrite the email message, replacing the disposable email address with the non-disposable email address;

  • Provide the email message to an email client;

  • Provide the context information to the email client;

  • Receive a reply to the email message; and

  • Rewrite the reply, replacing the non-disposable email address with the disposable email address.

Claim 13. The program storage device of claim 11, wherein the instructions stored thereon further comprise instructions for causing one or more of the programmable control devices to:

  • Provide the context information with the email message to the email client.

Here's the abstract for what it's worth:

An integrated system allows easily creating and using disposable email addresses. The disposable email address is created by an email server, which manages correspondence using the disposable email address to avoid exposing the associated non-disposable email address. Context information may be associated with a disposable email address, where the context information is not visible in email sent using the disposable email address. Expiration information may also be associated with the disposable email address, where the expiration information defines conditions that cause the disposable email address to expire. Should the disposable address be misused, the associated context may allow a user to recognize what correspondent exposed the disposable address to misuse.

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It seems to me that adding a 'request creation of new e-mail address'-protocol to the known concept of disposable e-mail addresses is not particularly novel, looking for specific references.

Can anyone help find Prior Art (prior to 8/13/12) on this patent application US20140047043 to provide to the US Patent Office.

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I agree that some of the claims, particularly claim 1, are very thin. But to be of the most help in at least narrowing any finally allowed claims it might make sense to acknowledge the meatiest claims and solicit prior art that covers that material. Also, in patent speak "novel" = "new" and it doesn't take much to be new. Non-obvious is a higher and less objective standard that a claim must also meet to be allowed. For better or worse, "ground breaking" has never been a requirement for patentability. Most patents are for incremental improvements. – George White 1 hour ago –  George White Feb 13 at 23:30
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It might be helpful if someone could distill the application's "patent speak" into language everyone could understand. That would make it easier for more people to help offer up examples of prior art for the various claims. –  Kevin Smith Feb 14 at 13:44
    
For example, the associated context information referred to in claim 1 sounds like nothing more than a private note the user makes for a given disposable email address. The service I created has this, and I'm sure that's not a novel thing at all. –  Kevin Smith Feb 14 at 13:46
    
If I am not mistaken and reading the claims correctly, then this how the email anonymyzer works on Craigslist. You post up an ad, it asks if you to use your email or a generated one, and messages sent to that address are redirected to your address. I'm not sure if replies do the same. –  Nextraztus Feb 18 at 21:45

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Guerillamail has an API for creating a new email address.

For example:

http://api.guerrillamail.com/ajax.php?f=get_email_address&ip=127.0.0.1&agent=Mozilla_foo_bar

https://www.guerrillamail.com/GuerrillaMailAPI.html

When this was reviewed by a journalist, the most obvious use was indeed what Apple is trying to patent:

http://blog.programmableweb.com/2011/05/10/guerilla-mail-an-api-that-helps-stop-spam/

It allows the same functionality as the website, and some additional tricks such as setting the e-mail address to one of the user’s choice. This API might allow, as an example, a developer to make a truly paranoid web browser, integrating Guerilla Mail into it for website registering purposes.

Mailinator has the same type of API. This API used in a testing framework:

https://github.com/technicalpickles/mailinator-spec

Claim 11. A non-transitory program storage device, readable by one or more programmable control devices, comprising instructions stored thereon for causing one or more of the programmable control devices to:

Allocate a disposable email address, the disposable email address independent of a non-disposable email address;

This is available in the APIs above.

Associate the disposable email address with the non-disposable email address;

The two above is done for example in HushMail where nyms can be requested using an UI.

Associate a context information with the disposable email address, external to the disposable email address;

All systems do this, otherwise they cannot possibly function correcctly. APIs have cookies, account info etc.

Associate an expiration information with the disposable email address, external to the disposable email address;

The guerillamail API supports this. I haven't checked the others.

Receive an email message addressed to the disposable email address;

Obviously done.

Rewrite the email message, replacing the disposable email address with the non-disposable email address;

This might not be done by the existing solutions, but if this is a requirement, it seems trivial to get around. Why was this put into the claims? Was it because prior art on everything else exists and this should be a patent without any protection ability?

Provide the email message to an email client;

Everything that reads an email is an email client, so..

Provide the context information to the email client;

The context information can be anything, so just the info that you are logged into your email client (your name in the upper right corner) is context information attached to the email address.

Receive a reply to the email message; and

Rewrite the reply, replacing the non-disposable email address with the disposable email address.

Here again, there is this strange requirement that the "real" email address must be used. By just informing the user of the disposable email address, then the real email address can also be shown, since this isn't a rewrite of the "email-address", it is just showing context information (the real email address).

Claim 13. The program storage device of claim 11, wherein the instructions stored thereon further comprise instructions for causing one or more of the programmable control devices to:

Provide the context information with the email message to the email client.

Update: I found some additional art. I have not checked whether this is prior art or not.

Auto alias pairs

How would auto alias pairs work? Imagine users Alice and Bob. Alice wants to correspond with Bob but doesn’t want either her service provider or Bob’s service provider to be able to record the association. She also doesn’t want a network observer to be able to map the association.

When Alice first sends a message to Bob, Alice’s client will initiate the following chain of events on her behalf, automatically and behind the scenes.

Alice’s client requests a new alias from her service provider. If her normal address is alice@domain.org, she receives an alias hjj3fpwv84fn@domain.org that will forward messages to her account. Alice’s client uses automatic key discovery and validation to find Bob’s public key and discover if Bob’s service provider supports map resistant routing. If Bob does support it, Alice’s client will then send a special message, encrypted to Bob’s key, that contains Alice’s public address and her private alias. When Bob’s client encounters this special message, it records a mapping between Alice’s public address (alice@domain.org) and the private alias she has created for Bob’s use (hjj3fpwv84fn@domain.org). Bob’s client then creates an alias for Bob and sends it to Alice. Alice’s client receives this alias, and records the mapping between Bob’s public address and his private alias. Alice’s client then relays the original message to Bob’s alias.

Subsequently, whenever Alice or Bob want to communicate, they use the normal public addresses for one another, but behind the scenes their clients will rewrite the source and recipient of the messages to use the private aliases.

This scheme is backwards compatible with existing messaging protocols, such as SMTP and XMPP.

https://leap.se/en/docs/tech/routing

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You have noted that at least two of the steps seem to have unnecessary details. It may very well be that without those details this is old. In that case it might be that Apple gets a patent but it is one that is very easy for others to get around by just omitting those steps or details in their implementations. –  George White Feb 19 at 19:07
    
It really depends on what 'rewrite' and 'replacing the non-disposable email address' really means. Every computer program will rewrite data multiple times between it is received from the network and until it is displayed on a screen. Whether something is 'replaced', 'transformed', or 'augmented' is really vague. But an implication of the claim seems to be that the disposable email address, since it is 'replaced', must be removed from the data structure. By keeping it, it isn't replaced. –  user239558 Feb 20 at 12:12
    
Another interpretation is that it is 'replaced' if the same location in an UI is used to display something. As I mentioned, it seems that some sort of indicator or formatting change would get around this issue. –  user239558 Feb 20 at 12:14

It sounds amazingly similar to what we have been doing at Spamex (http://www.spamex.com) since 2000. Spamex has a browser plugin to create Disposable Email Addresses, Spamex is Bi-Directional (replies are routed through Spamex and ths re-anonymized), Spamex routes mail sent to Disposable Email Addresses to any of the Real Email Addresses registered with the service so you do not have to check additional accounts, Spamex even allows the addition of your own Domain Names to the service so that you do not have to use those provided by Spamex. I'll have to reread and rearead the patent to see where the novelty here is.

Justin Greene CEO / The Spamex Disposable Email Address Service

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A direct answer to the question as originally posted: The best way to keep the application from eventually turning into an issued patent would be to search for (and solicit others to search for) documents that qualify technically to be used as prior art against the application in question and either individually, or taken together show that the most substantive things claimable under the disclosure are not new or are obvious. A patent examiner rejects on lack of novelty by finding a single embodiment in a single document from the past where the single embodiment teaches all elements of a proposed claim. They reject as obvious by finding one or more documents that, together, contain all of the elements of a claim. Then they need to explain why someone would and could put those elements together to reach the claimed invention as a whole.

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I would argue that the functionality of using a client/server protocol to present a more user friendly representation of the actual e-mail address to the user is not any different from the concept of Outlook or other e-mail clients using an LDAP-lookup from a company address book to replace a human readable name (i.e. "White, George") as the recipient of an email with the actual email address (fx. "gwhite@outlook.com"). –  user11347 Feb 14 at 9:52
    
I don't see that the LDAP case is disposable or allows one to turn off communication sender-by-sender. –  George White Feb 15 at 0:53
    
The LDAP case is the perfect analogy since LDAP supports deleting entries in the address book (see for example en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) as well as modifying values in the address book with the result that a given recipient would no longer automatically be mapped to a human readable address format instead of the technical underlying addressing information. I don't see the need to interpret "disposable" so literally that it cannot even correspond to the properties of a record that can be deleted as a function of the protocol. –  user11347 Feb 16 at 12:24
    
This is a really clear explanation, I had never had it explained succinctly. Thank you! "A patent examiner rejects on lack of novelty by finding a single embodiment in a single document from the past where the single embodiment teaches all elements of a proposed claim. They reject as obvious by finding one or more documents that, together, contain all of the elements of a claim." –  Micah Siegel Feb 19 at 22:41

I'm sure that the ideas present in this patent application are either already invented, too obvious or too simple. Disposable email, as an anti-spam solution, has been around for over a decade now, and many variations have been built over the years. Here are some things in this patent that I see as already indented:

Analyze web page and identify email address entry field

Modern browsers such as chrome & Firefox already scan forms for email address entry fields and offer to use the previous email address used.

Offer to use disposable address

Disposable email addresses look no different to normal email addresses. If a disposable email was previously used, then modern browsers such as Chrome or Firefox will offer that as a choice when an email entry field is detected. In that case, the user can choose whenever to use a disposable email address or not.

Obtain context and expiration for disposable address

There's a "TarshMail.net for Google Chrome" extension which allows automatic fill in of email fields with a disposable address where the user makes a choice by simply clicking a pop-up menu. It allows the user to set expiry and other parameters.

You can enter context by choosing the address part of the address, eg. set it to login.somespammydomain.com@disposablemail.com - next time spam arrives to this address, you know that it was leaked from somespammydomain.com

(A variation of this practice is possible many others, including Google's Gmail, where disposable addresses can be created by post-fixing them with with a + character and a label, eg. username+somespammydomain.com@gmail.com )

Description and screenshots of Trash Mail extension are here https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/trashmailnet-for-google-c/lpkbealomjndjpckajbnpakcoeelbpcf There's no date when it was first published, but first review shows "Nov 28, 2010"

Note, the idea of using a unique email address for registration to determine if a service will be a source of spam is nothing new.

Rewrite the reply, replacing the non-disposable email address with the disposable email address.

This is nothing more than a proxy. For example, Craigslist provides disposable email addresses for their ads. When someone replies to an ad, craigslist will forward the email to the real email address. When the user replies back, the email will be forwarded through craigslist where the reply-to addresses will be changed.

See http://www.craigslist.org/about/help/email-relay

Other similar mechanisms are those offered by "Anonymous Remailer" type services. Description of these can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_remailer

Edit: Here is a description of another similar service http://blog.aclarke.eu/introducing-33mailcom-unlimited-disposable-email-addresses/

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Most new things are made up of old things put together somehow. –  George White Feb 23 at 1:38
    
I definitely thought of the Gmail + notation when reading this. I believe it is not just Gmail, it is part of the IETF standards for internet messages tools.ietf.org/html/rfc5233 –  Elin Mar 3 at 13:01

Adding another answer to avoid clogging my already verbose answer.

I think I have found almost exactly this functionality at vfemail.net

This is prior art in rewriting of the email From address, and completely hiding it from the email UI/client.

http://www.vfemail.net/faq.php#twentyone

What is the Metadata Mitigator™?

In short, it prevents the NSA (or any other eavesdropper) from tracking your communications back to you, or profiling your communications, based on email 'envelope' information.

The long version with all the details: Email is in plain text by default. It is also structured much like regular postal mail. The email you compose is essentially 'stuffed' into an envelope. On that envelope is written the sender and the recipient. During delivery, servers then add the 'postmark' (timestamp and sending IP), just like the post office does. That information is called 'metadata'. It can be read almost as easily as you can read the outside of a sealed envelope. Except with email, that data can be stored in logs for any amount of time, and any government agency can request that data and practically be assured they will receive it. The United States National Security Agency in 2013 has been exposed as collecting and using that data to catalog email traffic and create associations based on who is communicating with whom. VFEmail's Metadata Mitigator™ automatically rewrites the 'From' address on the envelope to a unique address for each email sent - creating virtual forwarding PO Boxes - which renders the gathering and cataloging useless as your real email address is never shown. Your recipients will still see the email is from you (they have 'opened' the envelope), and they can reply to your regular address without any addiitonal steps. No changes need to be made to your email client to enable this feature either. In addition, any bounced or rejected email will still be returned to you. This feature is availabe, and automatically enabled, for all Gold and Platinum users.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spamgourmet

The service is available since 2000.

From wikipedia: Available via an Artistic License, the source code of Spamgourmet is downloadable on SourceForge. While the code is available in its most current state from the SVN repository, the Spamgourmet team has not made a formal release of the code since 2007.

also:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disposable_email_address

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Unless this is more than a way to get a disposable email account it may not add anything beyond what the applicants have already acknowledged as old. –  George White Feb 13 at 22:50
    
I don't see anything new or untried in the patent application. How can't a service which is offering the same thing constitute prior-art, especially if the code required for implementation is available for everyone to see/use under Artistic License on SourceForge? –  Stick Feb 14 at 7:37
    
As I understand it the 'new' thing is supposedly making it transparent to the user that a disposable email address is created by allowing the email client to request creation of a DEA seamlessly from the server upon the composition and sending of an e-mail to a new recipient or possibly by letting the user press a button in the email composition interface saying "I want this email to be spam-protected". Correct me if I've misunderstood the deliberately vaguely formulated application. I really dislike this vague patent application language - completely useless for knowledge dissemination! –  user11347 Feb 14 at 9:46
    
In simple terms the system should work like this: –  Stick Feb 14 at 11:09
    
1. user wants to send an email 2. the email client (or application) creates a disposable email address which is linked with the users regular mail address. 3. the email is sent from the disposable address. 4. a reply is received to the disposable address. 5. the reply is forwarded to the user's regular address. The associated context that allows the user to identify what correspondent exposed the disposable address to misuse means that for each recipient of the original email, a different disposable email address is used. Hope this clears it up a bit. Sorry for the 2 posts. –  Stick Feb 14 at 11:17

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