- 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.
The 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.
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