We’ve all heard a lot of lecturing about how information that goes out over the Internet or through wireless networks is hard to "get back" and how, in the information age, the careers and reputations of many a young person have been scuttled through a single ill-advised click. It seems that hardly anyone is immune; users of all ages have bemoaned the fact that the Internet, for all intents and purposes, functions like one big, glitchy, cantankerous digital copying machine.
However, as the global user community starts to put more focus on privacy, some companies are inventing new kinds of digital consumer products. This includes apps that help delete sensitive information quickly, rather than leaving it lying around to go viral. These tools are the digital equivalent of writing in invisible ink, cramming paper into your mouth or taking a Zippo lighter to a post-it note. They’re designed to help users protect their digital privacy and prevent disastrous consequences … such as Anthony Weiner’s infamous "selfie" … not to mention his unfortunate last name.
A good example of this kind of technology is Snapchat, a relatively new app that’s been getting a lot of attention in the press. It’s being touted as a good way to protect users from the potential pitfalls of sexting, something that, according the Pew Research Center, is being done by around 6 percent of American adults and 3 percent of teens. Rather than sending a sensitive message out into the world with no restrictions or limitations, Snapchat can help users set not only specific recipients, but a specific time frame for access, after which the image or text won’t be viewable anymore. This will help not only with activities that could fall into the "sexting" category, but with any photos that are meant for certain eyes only … like that party shot you want to show to your friends, but would really rather your boss – or your mom – didn’t see. (Read more about this issue in INFOGRAPHIC: 1984 in 2013: Privacy and the Internet.)
Automatic Deletion and Limitations
While some might see apps like Snapchat as a magic bullet for many privacy issues, and even a tactical advantage against the kinds of "Big Brother" activities now on the political hot plate, others are contending that apps that promise automatic deletion may not really work as promised. Reports like this one from Wikimotive show expert computer science engineers looking behind the Snapchat "wall" to discover that while deleted messages may not show up anymore, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still lurking in the provider’s storage media.
This uncertainty principle applies to other kinds of privacy and security architectures as well. Commonly, users are asking questions like, Will those getting my messages still be able to easily save them? Will an auto-delete app keep my data out of now not-so-secret government databases? How do I know if my messages are really "gone?" Not to mention another idea brought up in coverage of Snapchat, which is that a message recipient could simply take a picture of their screen with another camera or use other pre-saving apps to keep the "zombie image" alive for later embarrassment, blackmail, etc. This last scenario is a long shot, but it does illustrate how close to impossible 100 percent privacy has become. (To learn more, check out Don’t Look Now, But Online Privacy May Be Gone for Good.)
Corporations and Data Life Cycles
In a sense, what apps like Snapchat are really trying to do is to set common-sense standards for how users want their personal private data to behave. A very good analogy for this can be seen in the business world, where companies are now hiring professionals or third-party vendors with expertise in document or data life cycles. The idea here is that old data can be costly to maintain, but it can also be dangerous to have a lot of outdated information hanging around. Much like keeping stacks of old newspapers can pose a fire risk, gigabytes or terabytes of digital information about customers or others raises the risks of unforeseen liability down the road. As a result, many company executives are simply setting time frames for disposing of old documents and pieces of data. That way, they will only have a certain amount of sensitive data to protect at any one time, allowing them to focus on sufficient safeguards for the data that still needs to be floating around their networks for operational use.
Apps like Snapchat and other life cycle technologies may not completely prevent an embarrassing picture or message from making its way around the global Internet, or popping up on a social media platforms like Facebook, but this kind of personal data management is a step in the right direction. Nothing replaces personal discretion, but at least with some pre-set data use standards in place, the next slip of the finger is less likely to be so devastating. It isn’t a perfect solution, but when it comes to managing the increasing amount of data in the world, those are few and far between.