Social networks have exploded in popularity thanks to their ability to fulfill our growing appetites for connectedness. With the mountains of personal data constantly being pushed to and from these cavernous data centers, how can you be sure your data doesn’t linger on the Internet after clicking that delete button? After all, these networks that we use to connect with friends and acquaintances are not exactly known for their saintly security practices. So, is your data really deleted when you want it to be?
A word of Internet caution
Before we dive into this discussion of how social networks handle personal data, an often-forgotten truth bears repeating: Anything put on the Internet is there to stay. It is the nature of distributed technology accessed countless times every single day by humans and programs alike. You could even go so far as to call this whole argument moot given the potential permanence of all data pushed online, but we’re not here to quibble over semantics.
Social network privacy: A less than stellar track record
It is no secret that many of today’s most trafficked social networks have garnered the ire of customers that find their privacy practices less than adequate. With terms of service changing quicker than a teenager’s relationship status on Facebook, it is difficult to keep track of exactly what happens to data once it’s uploaded. Twitter became notorious for its rather lazy attempt to completely remove deleted tweets—the tweets remained visible in search results.
What motivates social networks to keep your data?
It is easy to see why social networks would want to keep your data after you’ve attempted to remove it. That data is what makes them money. Every piece of content uploaded to their servers—be it a picture of the kids or that short rant describing your disdain for your morning commute—means more clicks and, ultimately, more ad revenue.
Not only is it beneficial for the social network’s bottom line to keep your data around, but it is also just plain easier. The sheer amount of data these services process necessitates increasingly complex cloud technologies, like cutting-edge content delivery networks (CDNs), that replicate and cache data to maintain an optimal end-user experience. As such, removing content becomes more difficult than simply deleting a single data entry.
Slow, but steady progress
All of this is not to say that these services are ignoring the problem. Facebook made news recently when it finally came clean about its struggle to delete users’ photos when requested. Despite its attempt at honesty, Facebook still needs 30 days to guarantee that photos are completely removed.
So, is your data truly gone from your social network’s servers when you delete it? In short, no. Unfortunately, many of your rights to data disappear when the content hits the social network’s CDN. That fact, combined with a lack of truly compelling reasons for social networks to permanently delete data, means there is no guarantee that the data selected for removal will actually be deleted in a timely manner from every node of the service’s network. In most cases, this should not be cause for alarm. If anything, consider it one more reason to avoid posting embarrassing or potentially damaging content.
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