A Privacy Lawyer Reveals Where Your Personal Data Actually Goes On The Internet
Keep those drunken party shots for your personal albums

November 24, 2016

Nothing you delete is ever really gone

You know that in 2016, nothing you put on social media is truly private. But what about those embarrassing tweets or Facebook statuses that you posted years ago, but have since deleted? Can you ever truly scrub something from the Internet?

The answer, as you might expect, is murky.
“Whether or not something is deleted isn’t within the user’s control,” says Behnam Dayanim, Esq., a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who specializes in privacy and cyber security.
Take a regular email. When you delete it from your inbox, it goes to a “Deleted Items” folder. Empty that folder and you permanently kill the message—on your end.

But even a double-deleted item could stick around on your email provider’s servers for an indefinite amount of time, says Dayanim.

And in the event of a security breach, your info could wind up in the hands of hackers, he says. That goes for social media posts, emails, and text messages, too.

You can’t really get around this, since you give these companies explicit permission to hold on to your data when you agree to their vague privacy policies.
What exactly do those policies say? Here’s a sampling:

The social network stores data for “as long as necessary to provide products and services to you and others.”

After you delete an email, Gmail “may not immediately delete residual copies from our active servers.”

Twitter doesn’t comment on what it does when you delete a Tweet, but says that “search engines and other third parties may still retain copies of your public information, like your user profile information and public Tweets, even after you have deleted the information from the Twitter Services or deactivated your account.”

When you view a snap, it’s automatically deleted from the company’s servers—in “most cases.” Snapchat “can’t guarantee that the messages will be deleted within a specific timeframe” and says your snap “may remain in backup for a limited period of time.”

The photo app may retain information for “a commercially reasonable time for backup, archival, and/or audit purposes.”

Like we said, pretty vague. The common thread is companies can recover your data depending on particular circumstances, like requests from law enforcement or a subpoena, says Dayanim
If you’re a little freaked out by this, Cyberdust (free for iOS, Android, and Windows platforms) will ease some of your paranoia. The Mark Cuban-backed app claims to permanently wipe every message you send within 100 seconds of recipients reading it—even from company servers.

We hope you haven’t posted anything that could land you in jail. It’s more realistic to make a social media flub that jeopardizes your job—like the people behind these recent scandals. Don’t follow their leads.

• In 2013, PR consultant Justine Sacco Tweeted a tasteless joke: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ By the time she got off her 11-hour flight, thousands of angry people had responded to the Tweet, and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide.

Shortly after the gaffe, Sacco lost her job. She’s the subject of Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

• Earlier last year, Rory Cullinan, former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was fired from his position after his daughter posted screenshots of their private Snapchat messages to her Instagram account. Cullinan sent snaps from his office, with captions like “Another friggin meeting.” Seems innocent enough, but weeks later, Cullinan was canned.

• When a Buckingham Palace guard posted comments about Kate Middleton on his Facebook page, calling her a “posh bitch” and “stupid stuck-up cow,” the British Ministry relieved him of his duties guarding the Royal Wedding in 2011.

• In 2014, James Franco messaged a 17-year-old on Instagram, asking if she was single and wanted to meet up. The girl asked for proof that it was Franco—which the actor provided—then posted screenshots of the exchange on Imgur.

Franco copped to the exchange, but landed a seedy reputation for chatting up teens.

• Amy Pascal, one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives, stepped down from her role as head of Sony’s movie division after hackers released private emails between her and other producers in late 2014. In her messages, Pascal made racially insensitive comments about Barack Obama and insulted celebrities like Angelina Jolie.
Ultimately, ask yourself a few key questions every time you’re about to send something out: Will this get me fired? Will it keep me from landing a job in the future? Will it hurt someone?

If your status, photo, or text can’t pass the test, it probably isn’t worth posting.