Cat Coode: Technically Speaking


The Shocking Permanence of Your Online Data

How online posts, pictures and messages can ruin your reputation, even years later.

by: Cat Coode
The Permanence of Your Online Data |

Many Canadians have watched the unfolding trial of Jian Ghomeshi, a radio personality charged with sexually assaulting a multitude of women. In this he-said-she-said case, evidence is scarce, except... digital evidence. The defense’s main case revolves around using emails the women wrote in 2003.  This has brought up the questions of where did these old emails came from, and how permanent is your online data online?

Can digital media really last forever? Yes.

Each time we post a picture, a blog, a status or a tweet, we are adding to our digital identity, a permanent collection of data that defines who we are.  My company that teaches about online identity is called Binary Tattoo; The Binary is for the language of computers (the 1s and 0s), and Tattoo for that permanence of what you put online. Much like a real tattoo, this one would be expensive and very painful to remove. If the tattoo has been seen, it may already be too late.

As online applications become part of our daily lives, our digital identities become increasingly more detailed. More importantly, we are raising a generation of young kids who are sharing every detail of their lives online. The best protection we can offer is knowledge of how it all works.

Where and how is all of this data stored?


Stored by Social Media

When you delete a post from social media, that post is deleted from your view but it often remains in the servers (large computers) at the social media company so they can continue to analyze it. They want to know how long it takes between when women post and discuss weddings online until they start searching for information on babies. You may delete these messages and posts but they have filed them away.

Facebook nicely reminded me of their storage feature back in the time of the Look Back videos (summary slideshow of posts and photos over the years). I had already deleted many of my old photos including my first Facebook profile photo… but there it was in my Look Back video, staring right back at me. Can I access it from my profile? No. But they certainly have it.

Stored by External Services

There are many systems that crawl the internet for data and store it at that moment. The Way Back Machine is neat webpage that allows you to view what pages looked like in the past. Check out circa 2010 below!

This may be the same way that Calgary liberal candidate Ala Buzreba got in trouble in the 2014 Federal Election. Buzreba, who was 17 in 2011, posted several slanderous and inappropriate tweets. At the time, she was just being a teenager. Fast forward four years later and they cost her the government job she was hoping for. Twitter is a public forum and you are at the mercy to having all your Tweets captured by anyone. Two of such tweets are seen here.

Stored in Copies

The data is often out of sight and therefore out of mind, but it could be somewhere. Using an email message as an example, let's say you send the message from Yahoo to Gmail. There is then a copy of that email on the server for your Yahoo account as well as a copy on the Gmail server. If you use mail clients that show you messages offline (tablets, laptops, desktop computers) then there could also be copies on there. If you delete the copy from your email, copies will and can continue to exist in other places. Few people even delete old emails because storage seems to be limitless.

What can you do?

  • Consider all posts, texts, and messages ‘potentially’ public. Our online networks are only as private as the person you trust the least. If someone wants to, they can copy your posts and distribute them. Ask your kids if they know everyone on their friend or approved follower lists. The answer may surprise you.
  • Do not post anything you wouldn’t want a boss, principal, or your grandmother to see. If the post you are sending got sent out to the wrong person, would that be damaging? Software can have bugs in it, meaning the email or text you mean to send to your significant other could end up with your neighbour, coworker or dad, Would that be ok? As above, all things could be public.
  • Set privacy settings. I cringe every time someone’s personal Facebook statuses end up quoted in articles. Unless you are trying to announce things to the world or advertise on Pinterest, use the privacy settings.
  • Review your online identity and remove anything that no longer meets your high standards. What do you do if you notice that you had toilet paper hanging out of your pants for the last hour? You grab that thing as soon as possible and hope no one noticed.  If you have pictures or posts online you now regret, it is at least worth a try to remove them.

Social media and the internet are amazing tools that we should use and appreciate. We should also be aware of the pitfalls and be smart about how we use them.

 RELATED: Hidden Facebook Privacy Settings You Need to Know About