Why Deleting Something From The Internet Is “Almost Impossible”

(CNN business) Most people can live their digital life assuming they can delete their posts, messages and personal data from services whenever they want. But a technical hearing this week called that fundamental assumption into question.

Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, Twitter’s former security chief, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the social network doesn’t reliably erase the data of users who delete their accounts, expanding on bombing allegations it has made in a whistleblower revelation first reported by CNN and the Washington Post last month.

In his testimony and whistleblower disclosure, Zatko said that Twitter doesn’t reliably delete user data, in some cases because it has lost track of the information. Twitter has largely defended itself against Zatko’s allegations, saying his disclosure paints a “false narrative” about the company. In response to questions from CNN, Twitter has previously said it has workflows for “initiating a deletion process,” but didn’t say if it typically completes that process.

Peiter Zatko, known as Mudge in the computer hacker community, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 13, 2022. Photo by Sarah Silbiger for CNN

While Zatko’s allegations are staggering, they also served as just another reminder to Sandra Matz of “how often we are stupid” for sharing our data online.

“It sounds very simple, but whatever you put out there, never expect it to go private again,” said Matz, a social media researcher and professor at Columbia Business School. “To pull something off the Internet, hit the reset button is next to impossible.”

The stakes of feeling in control of our data, and confident in our ability to get rid of it, have probably never been higher. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, there is now the ability to use search histories, location data, text messages and more to punish people who search online for information or access abortion services.

In July, Facebook parent Meta came under strict scrutiny after reports broke that messages sent via Messenger and obtained by law enforcement had been used to accuse a Nebraska teenager and her mother of having an illegal abortion . (There was no indication that any of the messages in that case had previously been deleted.)

Ravi Sen, a cybersecurity researcher and professor at Texas A&M University, said law enforcement and other groups “with resources and access to the right kind of tools and expertise” could likely recover deleted data, under certain circumstances.

Sen said many people don’t know all the places their data ends up. Any post, whether it’s an email, social media comment, or direct message, is typically saved on the user’s device, the recipient’s device, and servers owned by a company whose you have used the platform. “Ideally,” she said, “if the user who generated the content” deletes it, “the content should disappear from all three locations.” But generally, she said, “it doesn’t happen that easily.”

Sen said you can contact companies and ask them to delete your data from their servers, though many allegedly never take that step. The chances of recovering a deleted message from a user’s device diminish over time, she added.

The best way to control your data online is to mostly use apps that offer end-to-end encryption, according to privacy experts. It’s also important to manage your backup settings in the cloud to ensure private data from encrypted services is still not accessible elsewhere.

But even with all the precautions an individual can take on their part, once you put something online, Matz says, “you’ve essentially lost control.”

“Because even if Twitter now deletes the post or deletes it from Facebook, someone else may have already copied the image you posted,” he said.

Matz said he recommends people be more aware of what they share on Big Tech platforms. As pessimistic as it sounds, he thinks it’s best to be overly cautious online.

“Just assume that anything you put out there can be used by anyone and will live forever,” he said.

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