The Internet Never Forgets
An elephant never forgets? Forget that. Try getting something pulled off-line when you really need it to go away. As you will quickly find out, it is nearly impossible to remove information completely off of the Internet once it has been posted. The Internet is such a distributed network with caching and proxy servers all over the world that once information is posted online it is part of that information collective and extremely difficult to sanitize (make it disappear permanently.) And when I say posted, I mean anything that is written to an Internet-based server is fair game, and you should be ready for that information to never go away.
I am not a conspiracy theorist that believes the black helicopters are scanning my brain waves or that the government is using my flat screen television to subconsciously program me. I do believe that the vast majority companies that provide us Internet-based services are honest and ran with integrity and concern for their customers’ privacy. However, I am not naïve enough to accept the fact that information does not get exposed accidentally or there are unforeseen circumstances where information may be breached intentionally or unintentionally.
So what is the big deal? Well, think about all the information that you store online; this goes both professionally and personally. Think about it really. If you are like most Internet savvy people, you have a tremendous amount of personal and professional information stored online. This can come from cloud storage such as Dropbox or Box.net to services such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Many of us do our taxes; host confidential and proprietary meetings; engage in personal and professional email communications that are sensitive; and even conduct medical activities online. How much of this would you like to see in Google’s or Yahoo’s search results? Would it matter that the information was accidentally exposed?
As both professional and personal consumers of digital services, we need to exercise some reasonable caution in what and how we store information online. Again, I am a huge advocate a cloud services, but organizations and people need to understand the risks associated with large-scale storage of information outside of their immediate control. As an example, most cloud storage vendors maintain a history of all your deleted files. For many people, this is a great benefit because if you accidentally deleted something two years ago, it is still retrievable. But what happens when you really want that information to go away? As a consumer of the service, you cannot force the cloud storage vendor to purge the information.
It comes down to privacy. While I think most companies are pragmatic and genuine in their motives of delivering quality services to their customers, I do believe they aggressively data mine this information to figure out how to make their services better. Does this mean they are targeting you, specifically? Of course not. Nevertheless they do aggregate that information to provide better and more comprehensive services to their customers. For the most part, I do not have a problem with this blinded data mining technique. At the same time, as a consumer, I just do not like my information being used.
As an IT professional I live on-line, and sometimes I get a little nervous with just how much of me is on-line. How much of me can be exposed to others for identity theft or general life disruption. There are nefarious people on-line who do bad things. With all this information on-line they know where to find incredible sources of information about people to engage in identity theft. We have placed all this information in these huge central repositories which in effect has placed a gigantic sign on them saying, ‘please come break into me and steal everything.’ These providers of fabulous technology services are massive targets and employ an enormous number of people and technology to help protect this information. But people and technology are not perfect and information can and will be breached. Do a quick Google search on data breaches and see how many you get for the last year or two? Has is stopped me or reduce the amount of information I have stored online? Am I giving up on social media for the sake of privacy? Nope–none of it, and I am engaged as ever.
Maybe I should have just retitled this posting and categorized it more as a rant about the role of computers in our lives. Let us be honest, pulling the computer or smart phone at most people’s hands is the equivalent of going cold turkey on 30-year hard-core caffeine addiction. It would be unpleasant to say the least. While I am not ready to give up my caffeine addiction yet, I am at least beginning to take notice of it.