Digital Deeds Never Die


By David H. Holtzman Unless you work for the National Security Agency, you'll never be sure that digital record you created is gone, truly gone, no matter how hard you try to delete it. That failed relationship that played out in e-mail -- still out there somewhere. That blog rant you're typing? It will be around when the plastic in your keyboard has dissolved into slush. Like an impulse tattoo, expressing an opinion online may seem like a good idea today, but it has every prospect of embarrassing you 20 years from now.

Think about your favorite scandal, political or business, money, or sex. Now picture the key evidence (good examples of embarrassing public documents can be found at The Smoking Gun. Martha Stewart's electronic calendar, Ollie North's e-mail, Dr. Laura's nude pictures, self-starring sex videos by Rob Lowe, Pamela Anderson, and Paris Hilton -- all were thought gone or hidden, yet all reappeared on the Internet or were recovered by investigators.

ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT. Digital data doesn't disappear. Regardless of the desired disposition, erased or hidden, it may come back again, someday. The Western notion of privacy will tip on this pivotal concept, causing profound societal changes in how we view our past.

Cameras record pictures on film. Control the negatives, burn the prints, and you've contained the damage. Handwritten letters are unique. Long afterward, the recipient is the only one who can look and recall the contents.

But the guts of digital gadgets work differently. Manufacturers market them as if they are powered versions of their analog counterparts, like electric knives are to carving knives. But that's an incorrect comparison. Computer gizmos work completely differently. Digital cameras are not film cameras with USB ports. Digital devices create data files.

These chunks of data are infinitely able to be replicated and globally accessible at virtually no cost. Plus, it's impossible to tell if someone has made copies, and the resulting replicas are indistinguishable from the original.

MULTIPLE STOPS. Just as the creation of these files is different, so is their handling. Pen goes to paper, light goes to film, but where does e-mail go? Eventually, it ends up on one or more disk drives, but along the way it stops at several intermediary servers. Various organizations control these waypoint routers.

If you use an Internet service provider such as AOL (TWX) or Earthlink (ELNK), your information could be cloned onto dozens of machines because of the architectural configuration of their network. Due to the nature of e-mail, several systems that have no connection to either the recipient or the sender will hold a copy of the note until it has been relayed.

Most people erroneously believe that it's sufficient to just delete a file. Consider backups. There's no way to know that old scanned pictures from your frat party don't exist on a dusty tape in a warehouse somewhere. It's potentially worse if you use Web-hosted services such as Hotmail, Yahoo! (YHOO), or any of the popular photo-sharing services. Even if the company is one of those rare security-conscious Web outfits, the content may be snagged by any of several crawlers or robots that are constantly scouring and copying the Net.

JUNKYARD RESURRECTION. And even if a note isn't sent, it can still be recovered. Monica Lewinsky fell victim to this situation. Several of her key e-mails were never actually sent, but deleted as drafts. Kenneth Starr had them re-created from her hard drive even though she thought that they were long gone. Some products now available purport to make e-mail "disappear" at a specified time, but they're still too new to properly evaluate.

Throwing away the disk drive doesn't work, either. Consider the many stories about recycling companies that recover information from discarded computers. Many were government-owned -- some even had classified information on them. There are ways to "wipe" disk drives, but they're expensive and not foolproof.

This phenomenon is not limited to consumer data. It also applies to government information like security checks, corporate information such as purchase history, and medical information such as test results or in the near future, DNA analysis.

We privacy cowards living in this brave new digital world are in the midst of the most significant cultural metamorphoses of modern times -- the transition from the industrial age to the era of information: immutable, indestructible, anonymous data. Politicians and business leaders need to expect to see old photos, e-mails, yes even DNA-stained dresses, come back to haunt them like Banquo's ghost. Holtzman is the former CTO of Network Solutions and the editor of Globalpov.com, a blog that explores social changes brought about by information technology


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