It has been three years since Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency for engaging in bulk surveillance on American citizens, and since that time the debate over privacy, data security, encryption and espionage has continued to rage fiercely. One topic that is not often talked about, however, is data permanency. In other words, once you put something online, how long does it stay there?
Most people have had the frustrating experience of trying to delete a Facebook account, only to find that the personal information they’ve shared about themselves seems permanently stuck to the site, as difficult to scrub clean as a white carpet soaked with red wine. Given how much of our lives we now keep online, it’s mildly concerning to know that someone can still dig up details from our less cautious teen years. For younger generations who emerge from infancy with tablet and smartphone clutched firmly in hand, the problem is ten times worse.
According to The Atlantic, personal data such as email addresses, usernames and even passwords persist on the internet far longer than most people realize — and far longer than the content most normal people actually care about — because it retains commercial value for businesses, as well as offering juicy potential to nefarious hackers. The viral video of Chocolate Rain, despite its timeless entertainment value, has little monetary value for a third party, whereas a password from ten years ago might still be in use by an incautious or forgetful internet denizen.
But while privacy hawks may cringe at the half-life of digital information, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate it as well. As soon as we started moving away from physical media and towards Cloud-based storage, techies started worrying about what they call the Digital Dark Age. In the event of a global disaster that destroys or wipes clean a large number of servers, we could end up losing much of the information now stored on the internet — an event that would have catastrophic implications for human knowledge as a whole, not to mention commerce, defense, finance, and communication.
Even without a digital apocalypse, the simple fact that most websites eventually lapse and fade away into the ether is worrying for future historians and digital archeologists. It’s entirely possible that much of our current civilization will be unrecoverable due to the fleeting nature of digital data, which leaves no fossils or artifacts behind it.
In an effort to prevent the Digital Dark Age from ever becoming a reality, a number of steps have been taken by private individuals all over the world. Wikipedia is producing enormous print versions of its contents, and while it’s unlikely that anyone would actually want to buy and house more than 7,000 volumes of the free encyclopedia, it is a handy backup in case something ever happens to the site itself. The Internet Archive stores vast amounts of data, backing up practically every site on the internet and preserving otherwise unrecoverable previous versions. And a collection of rogue archivists are backing up all kinds of information they think could be lost on their own initiatives.
If you’re worried about digital privacy, all of this is probably troubling to you, and that’s certainly an understandable reaction. As someone who has conducted research on political candidates professionally, I have used these tools to bring up old quotes and policy positions I’m sure the candidates themselves thought were long gone. That kind of footprint can stick with you forever, and that’s unnerving. But there’s an upside as well. At least from a political angle, being able to call up a candidate’s entire record with a few mouse clicks provides transparency and accountability to the people, which can only be a good thing. In a more general sense, knowing that digital information is not simply going to vanish off the face of the Earth is comfort to anyone who wants to avoid repeating the tragedy of the Library of Alexandria, where a large proportion of the world’s knowledge was lost in a single fire.
Data permanency, like anything else, has its benefits and drawbacks. I do think it’s important to be on guard against anyone, especially governments, who are spying on us without our knowledge and consent, and delving into our private inboxes, hard drives, or phone conversations, and to protect the encryption tools that allow us to obtain privacy if we really want it.
On some level, however, we have to realize that there’s no putting the genie of digital data back in the bottle, and that most of what we voluntarily put online will at some point be recoverable by a third party. This requires us to use discipline and discretion, skills I hope parents begin imparting to their internet-using toddlers as soon as possible. But more importantly, it gives us hope that all the wonderful content that’s made its way through cyberspace over the last couple of decades won’t be forever lost in a coming Digital Dark Age.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.