CNN

Why deleting something from the internet is ‘almost impossible’

Sep 18, 2022, 9:00 AM

Peiter Zatko, known as Mudge in the computer hacking community, testifies before the Senate Judicia...

Peiter Zatko, known as Mudge in the computer hacking community, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 13, 2022. Photo by Sarah Silbiger for CNN

(CNN) — Most people may live out their digital lives with the assumption they can delete their posts, messages and personal data from services whenever they choose. But a tech hearing this week threw that core assumption into question.

Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, the former security chief at Twitter, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the social network does not reliably delete the data of users who cancel their accounts, expanding on bombshell allegations he made in a whistleblower disclosure first reported by CNN and The Washington Post last month.

In his testimony and whistleblower disclosure, Zatko alleged Twitter does not reliably delete users’ data, in some cases because it has lost track of the information. Twitter has broadly defended itself against Zatko’s allegations, saying his disclosure paints a “false narrative” of the company. In response to questions from CNN, Twitter has previously said it has workflows in place to “begin a deletion process” but has not said whether it typically completes that process.

While Zatko’s allegations are stunning, it also served as just another reminder to Sandra Matz of “how oftentimes mindless we are” in sharing our data online.

“It sounds very simple, but whatever you put out there, don’t ever expect it to become private again,” said Matz, a social media researcher and professor at Columbia Business School. “Retracting something from the internet, hitting the reset button — is almost impossible.”

The stakes for feeling in control of our data, and confident in our ability to delete it, have arguably never been higher. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, there’s now potential to use search histories, location data, text messages and more to punish people who look online for information about or access to abortion services.

In July, Facebook-parent Meta came under harsh scrutiny after news broke that messages sent through Messenger and obtained by law enforcement had been used to charge a Nebraska teen and her mother with having an illegal abortion. (There was no indication any of the messages in that case had previously been deleted.)

Ravi Sen, a cybersecurity researcher and professor at Texas A&M University, said law enforcement and other groups “with resources and access to the right kind of tools and expertise” could likely recover deleted data, in certain circumstances.

Sen said many people don’t know all the places where their data ends up. Any post, whether it’s an email, social media comment or direct message, is typically saved on the user’s device, the recipient’s device and the servers owned by a company whose platform you used. “Ideally,” he said, “if the user who generated the content” deletes it, “the content should disappear from all three locations.” But generally, he said, “it doesn’t happen that easily.”

Sen said you can reach out to companies and ask them to delete your data from their servers, though many presumably never take this step. The chances of recovering a deleted message from a user’s device decreases with time, he added.

The best way to control your online data is to primarily use apps that offer end-to-end encryption, according to privacy experts. It’s also important to manage your cloud backup settings to ensure that private data from encrypted services isn’t still accessible elsewhere.

But even with all the precautions an individual can take on their end, once you put something online, Matz says, “you’ve essentially lost control.”

“Because even if Twitter now deletes the post, or you delete it from Facebook, someone else might have already copied the picture that you put out there,” she said.

Matz said she recommends people be more mindful about what they share on Big Tech platforms. As pessimistic as it sounds, she thinks it’s better to be overly cautious online.

“Just assume that everything you put out there can be used by anyone, and will live in perpetuity,” she said.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

CNN

Members of the Palestinian civil defense extinguish a fire in a building in the east of Rafah, the ...

Richard Roth and Tara John, CNN

US proposes a ‘temporary ceasefire’ in Gaza in draft UN resolution

The United States has proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas

2 days ago

Exercise particularly reduced risk of death for women, according to the data....

Madeline Holcombe, CNN

Women might lower their risk for cardiovascular disease by twice the amount as men with exercise

The benefits of exercise are great for everyone – but may be even better for women, according to a new study.

2 days ago

The 2024 BAFTA Film Awards are being presented on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Engl...

Alli Rosenbloom and Thomas Page, CNN

BAFTA Awards 2024: See who won

“Oppenheimer” was a big winner at the 2024 BAFTA Film Awards, which were presented Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall.

3 days ago

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump carries a pair of his new signa...

Kate Sullivan, CNN

Trump launches sneaker line a day after judge’s order to pay nearly $355 million

Donald Trump launched a sneaker line, a day after he and his companies were ordered by a judge to pay nearly $355 million.

3 days ago

Trevor Brown, 45, a member of the Sterling Volunteer Fire Company, died in the explosion....

Christal Hayes, Paradise Afshar and Rebekah Riess, CNN

Virginia home explodes with fire crews inside, leaving firefighter dead and 13 injured, officials say

A house exploded in Virginia as fire crews were inside checking a gas leak, leaving one firefighter dead and at least 13 others injured.

3 days ago

A police officer stands inside Lakewood Church, Sunday, February 18, in Houston....

Ashley R. Williams, Jeanne Bonner and Raja Razek, CNN

Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church resumes Sunday service one week after shooting that left 7-year-old boy injured

Services at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston resumed Sunday morning with a large security presence.

3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Why deleting something from the internet is ‘almost impossible’