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Rory Cellan-Jones

My life online - time to delete?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 5 Nov 09, 10:01 GMT

How much do you know about all the data you have stored out there on the web? And how much control do you have over it? Questions prompted by Google's latest move to deal with concerns about privacy.

Google screengrabThe search company has today launched its Dashboard, which it says will allow users to view and control all the data associated with any of the Google products they may use - from Gmail, to web history, to documents and so on. Why should you want to do that? Well it may give you a bit of a wake-up call about just how much information you are leaving stored on servers in California or elsewhere.

It prompted me to do a quick audit of my online data, and work out what control I had over it. There turned out to be a startling quantity of my stuff out there on the web. Amongst the Google products, I use are Gmail, Google Documents, YouTube and Web History. So I have nearly 22,000 e-mails stored, 589 documents, and 63 videos. My search history dates back to December 2006 - I presume that's when I opted into the service - and includes around 8,500 search terms. I'm reasonably satisfied that I have control over that data - after all I can simply delete all that material and opt out of search history if I so wish.

Then there are other photo and video sharing services like Flickr, and Apple's mobileme where I also have hundreds of pictures and videos for anyone to see if they so wish, plus thousands of contacts and calendar appointments which are only available to me. Again I feel pretty confident that I can wipe all of that if I decide that's best.

So what about all the traces I've left on various social networking sites? On Facebook's servers I have a large amount of material, including hundreds of photos posted by me, and quite a few of me posted by others. I can delete my own photos - but not those posted by others of me. And if I really get sick of Facebook I can simply delete my entire profile - and presumably all traces of my networking life there will disappear.

Now let's turn to Twitter. To my slight embarrassment I see that I've contributed over 7,000 tweets since I joined the micro-blogging service in 2007. All of those messages are now searchable by anyone. For the first time, I had a quick glance at Twitter's terms and conditions - and noticed this explanatory note:

"This license is you authorizing us to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same. But what's yours is yours - you own your content."

Now I've always regarded Twitter as a public place, so it doesn't really worry me that anyone can see what I've tweeted now and in the past. But in what sense do I "own" my content? If I delete my account, my thousands of tweets will still be online for anyone to read.

But there's one aspect of my online life where I'm even less clear about my control over my own data. For a couple of years I've used the Spinvox voice-to-text service - and you may remember that back in the summer I wrote several articles about that company, which included aspects of its data protection policies. I wrote to Spinvox this week with three questions. I wanted to know how long they kept my voice messages and the text transcribed from them, where that data was stored and what would happen to it if the business was sold to another company.

The answers I received were incomplete and slightly worrying. "Messages are stored in accordance with local data protection legislation", was about the sum of the answer to my first question, though I'm still pressing for details of what that means for my personal messages. Spinvox said all the data was held in its secure UK data centres, and if the company were to be sold, the new owner would acquire all of it. What I now need to find out is just how easy it is for me to wipe all of my embarrassing and confidential voice messages from the Spinvox servers if they are sold on.

Earlier this week on Radio 4's Start The Week , Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who has written a book called Delete:The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age, argued that the internet's infinite capacity to remember can be a real threat to our future reputations. He said that it was so much cheaper and easier now to store data on the internet than to delete it. I thought at the time he was overstating the problem - but looking at my vast collection of online documents, photos and other detritus, I begin to worry that he may be right.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It's simple - you should never put any information online that you are not prepared for ANYONE to see!

  • Comment number 2.

    "My search history dates back to December 2006 - I presume that's when I opted into the service - and includes around 8,500 search terms"

    This comment had me worried whether i'd opted in too in a fit of stupidity. Thankfully i didn't. Why on earth would you opt in?

  • Comment number 3.

    The BBC may be interested to learn that hyperlinks can be used to link to non-BBC webpages also. For example, a link to google.com/dashboard at some point in this article may have been of convenience to its readers.

  • Comment number 4.

    To realise the size of your digital footprint, there's a scary site called 123people.co.uk, which draws together info about you from all sorts of places. And it's not just based on personal names: if you tend to use the same screen name for forums/newsgroups/twitter etc., there's an amazing amount of info that can be pulled together about you.

  • Comment number 5.

    "It's simple - you should never put any information online that you are not prepared for ANYONE to see!" #1.

    I agree.

    The problem is that what someone puts on as a teenager or in their student days might come back to haunt them 30 years later. Both our judgment and perspectives changes as we grow older. I think Shonberger makes some good points on this issue.

  • Comment number 6.

    Re: #2
    This comment had me worried whether i'd opted in too in a fit of stupidity. Thankfully i didn't. Why on earth would you opt in?

    Because Google refine their search results and tailor them to you based on your previous searches. For those who aren't particularly paranoid, it's very useful.

  • Comment number 7.

    The problem is that what someone puts on as a teenager or in their student days might come back to haunt them 30 years later.

    I rather hope that this problem will solve itself socially as people come to realise that years old photos of drunken student antics don't automatically mean that a would-be employee is a terrible person, any more than a lack of photos means that they are, and always have been, a teetotal saint.

  • Comment number 8.

    Yawn. Rory this is a technology blog is it not? Perhaps you should spend some of our licence fee on talking about Dashboard itself instead or rehashing the same tired points about online identity and privacy that 40 billion other articles have covered and pointing out how social networky you are?

  • Comment number 9.

    Mark Zuckerberg: "what you upload onto Facebook belongs to Facebook." Though now revoked, there was a period where facebook changed their Terms of Use, so that everything you've loaded up into your profile (personal pictures, etc.) belongs to Facebook, even after you've deleted them or closed your account. Basically, Facebook could do whatever they want with your stuff.
    See this for a comparison with other social networking sites: http://amandafrench.net/2009/02/16/facebook-terms-of-service-compared/
    Unfortunately the reality is now that one careless photo can be taken completely out of context, blown completely out of proportion, and blight the future career or other prospects of the individual concerned.

  • Comment number 10.

    Having "deleted" my Facebook profile in the past, and then subsequently reactivated it again to find everything exactly as it was, I'm pretty confident that absolutely nothing is deleted at all when you "delete" your Facebook profile. Given how valuable data about their users is to Facebook I wouldn't be all that surprised.

  • Comment number 11.

    Matt Sharpe wrote:

    "Having 'deleted' my Facebook profile in the past, and then subsequently reactivated it again to find everything exactly as it was, I'm pretty confident that absolutely nothing is deleted at all when you "delete" your Facebook profile."

    The only way I have managed to do it is to contact them. You are then required to delete all the content (friends, posts and so on) which at that time you had to do one at a time. Thankfully I did not have a lot on there.

    Once EVERYTHING is deleted, you then contact them again and they manually delete your account off the system

    Then you cannot re-activate it.

    I believe that since I did that it has become a little easier, but I am not sure how much easier.

  • Comment number 12.

    Having "deleted" my Facebook profile in the past, and then subsequently reactivated it again to find everything exactly as it was, I'm pretty confident that absolutely nothing is deleted at all when you "delete" your Facebook profile. Given how valuable data about their users is to Facebook I wouldn't be all that surprised.
    ----------
    Indeed it is not deleted, it is however made unavailable. It's kept entirely for the reason you found that sometimes people change their mind.

    Bear in mind that even if it had been actually deleted it would likely still be on a DLT somewhere as part of the backup systems.

  • Comment number 13.

    Okay, cant resist a little scaremongering:

    I do worry that like a dog with a nice fresh bone, when we attached our lives to the online experience, we are simply selling ourselves to commercialisation.

    This is not just losing control of your identity, but of your entire life. When the internet first landed in the hands of the general public, it was pretty obvious that it would be taken over by vast commercial interests and we would end up using the system the way THEY wanted you to use it, rather than the other way.

    Strangely, I think governments have gotten caught up in the same net as the rest of us, rather than being the instigators, for a change.

    Twitter, although harmless (and pointless) in it self, is however a symptom of giving in to the new world without realising what we are missing from the old one. This is not about technology changing the world, or even taking it over, it is about the control of this technology slowly and surely being taken over by a smaller and smaller number of companies.

    I heard some teens arguing the other day about whether their lives were Google or MSN. They really felt that:

    1. You are born
    2. You learn to talk, right
    3. You go on line
    4. you choose MS or Google. (You always choose FB of course)

    Then I assume you die sometime later.

    Nothing else; everything subservient to those decisions.

    There is nothing wrong with the internet, the technology or communicating on line.

    However, with excessive reliance on a system that this world probably doesn't actually need to be able to function, we are trapping ourselves into a culture that is not controlled by people we can vote out. And that is just a little worrying.

  • Comment number 14.

    What a poor article. Does he really believe that by hitting ‘delete’ that all his Google data is wiped forever? There is screeds of meta data associated with usage patterns not the actual data that will not be deleted when the button is hit. SpinVox? What about the voicemail provider, what are their data controls surrounding his voice mails? Credit card usage patterns, shopping patterns and so on, and so on. What about the government’s records, can you hit delete on those? Oh but that’s right, we all trust the government and they never do anything untoward with our personal data do they? The more this guy writes the more he seems to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about the modern world of data, personal information, who owns it and who poses the greatest threat by its misuse.

  • Comment number 15.

    In terms of paranoia: my data is as a snowflake in a blizzard.





  • Comment number 16.

    “The problem is that what someone puts on as a teenager or in their student days might come back to haunt them 30 years later.

    I rather hope that this problem will solve itself socially as people come to realise that years old photos of drunken student antics don't automatically mean that a would-be employee is a terrible person, any more than a lack of photos means that they are, and always have been, a teetotal saint.” #7
    -----------------------------------------------
    To take it a stage further: its not just photos - it’s every comment you posted, every email, every exchange of SMS [txt] messages, chat exchange, every Tweet, records of every website you visited etc. Google now keeps a record of every search every person makes for 9 months; other websites may keep them stored forever.

    Imagine living in a world where every conversation could be recorded, even intimate ones or arguments between friends.
    Of course that doesn’t happen, but once you begin to communicate via the Internet or mobile device it does.

    Would you be happy at the thought of having every utterance you’ve made during your life quoted [and played] back at you? Would it be fair if it could happen?

    Shonberger’s argument is that if you posted a comment on, say, YouTube (easily forgotten about thereafter) then after a set period [from months to years] YouTube would have to remove [delete] that comment and make sure it was no longer stored on its servers.

    I think there is some merit in the suggestion.

  • Comment number 17.

    "..... we are trapping ourselves into a culture that is not controlled by people we can vote out. And that is just a little worrying"

    What is worrying is ANY UK government can throw you in jail with no explanation, using personal data that you have NO IDEA about or no control over!! And you fear Google?!

  • Comment number 18.

    @ psycobdelic
    you're dead right - safety in numbers here surely. Does anyone really care that much about you?

    If people wanted to find dirt on any of us they could do so, the same now as they could 30 years ago.

  • Comment number 19.

    Ah, I'm afraid you haven't quite felt uncomfortable yet until you have read a little section buried quite deep in Google's Terms of Service. As far as I can tell, Google's Terms of Service allow them to use every single thing you save, even in modified form. It's up to them to attribute it or not, but if you have any sort of Intellectual Property it appears to be a good idea to leave Google well alone. The permission you gave given by ticking the "I agree" box is "in perpetuity", which is legalese for "70 years after you die".

    Proof? Look up Google Terms of Service, scroll down to clause 11. Just when you thought the limitations in 11.1 were sensible and something you could probably live with, along comes clause 11.2 which is so vague as to allow any use. Welcome to the new world, where one hand allegedly giveth your privacy back (forced by the Swiss), yet that other hand goes on grabbing..

    In addition, Data Protection is also not quite what it's cracked up to be. If a business gathers data from you, it has to tell you why and what it's going to do with it. When it changes that use, it has to tell you. However, when said business gathers data FROM YOUR FRIENDS, no such obligation exists. Hence the Facebook idea to ask about friends, and the scary side effect of the Google Picasa tagging system.

    If this makes you lie awake at night now, good. Educate others, as there is almost 9 years of counter privacy indoctrination to undo. You may have nothing to hide, but you still don't tell everyone your salary, close the curtains at night and the bathroom door when you take a leak.

    Rule 1 of the Internet: assume anything you do gets public. Rule 2: read an agreement before you agree to it.

  • Comment number 20.

    Rory I find this article rather naive, I realise you are aiming it at the "masses" but if you really want to highlight just how little control over personal data people have then surely you would do better to actually mention that most data is stored, for infinitum, on servers somewhere and can be accessed quite easily.

    Perhaps when the "masses" realise this they won't find Facebook and other such "social networking" sites so inviting...

  • Comment number 21.

    'In terms of paranoia: my data is as a snowflake in a blizzard.' #15.

    There's a Chinese curse, 'May you come to the attention of those in authority'; in today's world it could be updated to 'may you fall into the media spotlight'.

    Even snowflakes can be put under a microscope.

  • Comment number 22.

    Rory, from a technical point of view, did Google have any issues combining a group of their sites like this? A lot of them did start out as products from completely separate companies. Did it require some serious rebuilding of their systems?

    I'm curious to know Google's process of integrating services with their own. I notice that they have a list of products not yet available (I assume they put them there as they will one day). There's no mention at all of Youtube. Does Google have any plans to put Youtube on the dashboard so you'll have a quick overview of your youtube account?

    The privacy question is always there and it's worth everyone keeping it in the back of their minds when they're online, but I think the really interesting part of this story is how Google goes about linking all their services, some of which have millions of users.

    One last Offtopic point here, but this issue is getting on my nerves. I have a 1280x1024px resolution on my monitor, this is about a standard size nowadays (and with widescreens becoming more popular the width is getting.. wider). The column of text for the article and comments makes up only half the width of my screen. I know whitespace is nice, but why use only half the screen?

  • Comment number 23.

    'The column of text for the article and comments makes up only half the width of my screen. I know whitespace is nice, but why use only half the screen?'

    One possible reason. In publishing (newspapers, magazines etc) it is known that the optimum length of a line, for ease of reading and comprehension, is around 60-70 characters. (For text in columns, 40-50 characters per line.)

  • Comment number 24.

    "I have a 1280x1024px resolution on my monitor, this is about a standard size nowadays (and with widescreens becoming more popular the width is getting.. wider)."

    There is no standard size at all nowadays. Designers have to design sites for a huge variety of screen sizes, from huge resolutions like 1920 x 1200 (and above) all the way down to the tiny resolution you get on your mobile. Faced with this it's no surprise that sites have opted for the fixed width approach to website design. If you have a huge monitor it's highly unlikely your browser will be occupying the whole screen anyway.

  • Comment number 25.

    Designers have to design sites for a huge variety of screen sizes, from huge resolutions like 1920 x 1200 (and above) all the way down to the tiny resolution you get on your mobile. Faced with this it's no surprise that sites have opted for the fixed width approach to website design.

    Seriously? The designs have to work on a variety of devices so they're made to only fit one particular size and this is 'unsurprising'? I'd have thought the obvious thing to do would be to mark the content up properly and allow the browser to render it how ever best fits the device.

  • Comment number 26.

    @ _Ewan_

    Twisting my words. The fixed width approach does not just fit one particular size, it's the best fit for a huge variety of devices.

    For leviathan sites like the bbc, this is the best approach. There's a reason that the vast majority of news sites are fixed width, and it's not just about designers wanting control.

  • Comment number 27.

    Thought I'd wade into this argument with "Wot I reckon".

    I've always kept several identities running on the internet. I use my real information for very little, namely anything business or money related.

    Anything else is done through various personas, such as the one I'm using now. It's very easy to protect your real data, just don't hand it out to people!

  • Comment number 28.

    @24, 26

    I'm actually a professional web developer, which is why it bugs me so much. Statistics show that the vast majority of users are on 1280x1024 or 1024x768. So the optimal design would be for those resolutions. Also the statistics are showing that screen widths are getting wider (obvious with widescreens). I think the quantity of users less than 1024x768 is around 5%, and mobile device readers less than that.

    While this column of text fits nicely at the top, there's no reason that every time it passes the right menu that it stays strictly the same width. It could expand quite easily. What's more with the increased line-height of the design update a while back, it is extended further down. The content is being spread too thinly.

  • Comment number 29.

    Pixelvision #28.

    "I'm actually a professional web developer.."

    then you will be using css3 to cater for different devices and resolutions, no?

  • Comment number 30.

    Statistics show that the vast majority of users are on 1280x1024 or 1024x768. So the optimal design would be for those resolutions.

    No, the optimal design would be one that scales to fit. That way it works regardless of what size or shape my display is, and independently of whether I choose to have the browser take up all of it or not.

    I really don't see how "The fixed width approach does not just fit one particular size" - that's surely the whole point, it's fixed to one particular size.

  • Comment number 31.

    jr4412: Pixelvision #28.

    "I'm actually a professional web developer.."

    then you will be using css3 to cater for different devices and resolutions, no?


    Yes. I would start by putting a class on each comment div which has a percentage width value to fit the content div (checking it with firebug I can see that it's called main_content) so that when they pass the sidebar div they expand into the available space. They'd also have a min-width value set to ensure it doesn't shrink too much.

    _Ewan_:I really don't see how "The fixed width approach does not just fit one particular size" - that's surely the whole point, it's fixed to one particular size.

    While I agree totally that there should be some scaling here, you need to have some constraints. It's never as simple as making the whole page resize for the browser window. Your first comment above on this topic was correct when you said it should resize for the browser. However from a designer's perspective it's a very bad idea for the entire page to do this.

  • Comment number 32.

    SpinVox concern me, they're policies are very muddy, and they are very woolly when it comes to explaining them.

  • Comment number 33.

    Oh and people talking about resolution and css etc... Yes all that is possible, but it doesn't change the fact that the human eye/brain finds the optimum page width to be around 70 characters, any wider and its natural to find it difficult to read.

    So what happens is there are generally 'relative width' columns to the left and right of the 'fixed width' main body column. Of course if this was a commercial site that empty space would be filled with Flash ads - I prefer the white space to that, so please don't change BBC

  • Comment number 34.

    I touch on this on my blog about Google Personalising Search Results over at Infoserve Marketing. I think that Google is trying to cover Yahoo's new approach of making things more personal, with Yahoo promoting the "It's You" campaign.

    The problem is there is a lot of data that you would hope isn't visible to all across the web. I hear it more and more about privacy concerns, eventually there will be a law that prevents search engines doing such things, but until then we just have to be careful

 

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