The illusion of ephemeral data

Bloomberg Businessweek discovered the market for ephemeral data – data that will disappear after set time. Apparently that’s what people want and that’s what people get from the likes of Snapchat, or even from the Facebook itself.

Now, here’s the catch. There is no ephemeral data on the Internet, and it is unlikely that it will ever be. There is only the illusion of it. The fact that you loose access to your data does not mean that your data disappear. Deleting data is hard. There are some standards and there are some companies that specialise in just that and they charge for a service.

As for us, mere mortals, our confidence in the Web site forgetting about us directly depends on our trust in those who manage our data. And, frankly, such a trust is hard to come by and even harder to justify. They are simply not trustworthy. In the quest to drive business up they exploit their own customers.

So, if the site does not allow you to unregistered and to remove data, it is unlikely that you will be ever forgotten. If the site says that it will process your data, you will not be forgotten either. If it says that it will company with law enforcement rules (that they have to anyway), chances are that your data will be stored just in case. Even if it says that it erases data, it is the technology itself that is against them: there are replicated databases, there are backups, there are caches throughout the world where your data will linger well past its ‘expire by’ date.

For all the practical reasons you can assume that whatever you publish on the Web (including those words) will be stored forever, no matter what your Web site says and no matter what you do. Your privacy settings will be ignored, your actions will not be what you expect them to be. ‘Deleted’ data may be a bit hard to find (at least for now), but that’s just it. I bet that in ten or twenty years’ time amateur digital archaeology will be a big hit. With new tools, faster Internet and better computers digging out our ‘deleted’ data will be a new pastime.

Truly ephemeral data does not start with a new technical gimmick. It starts with the trustworthy service provider. It starts with the trustworthy Web. Which is way harder, and way less glamorous. But that’s the only way.

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