Digital permanence: What goes on the Internet stays on the Internet

Eric Tornoe
Eric Tornoe, a computer security expert at the University of St. Thomas, warns that "most of the stuff on the web is living on a hard drive somewhere, and it doesn’t cost a lot to store.”
"If you post something to a blog or Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else on the ‘Net, you can never be sure someone hasn’t made a copy." -- Isaac Wolkerstorfer

When you’re 16, you feel invincible, maybe even confident you’ll live forever. As mortal humans, we know that’s not true.

However, what you post online today will be forever. Even when you’re dead, your photos, videos and blogs can still be visible to others.

Everything is permanent.

Ladonna Edwards, 17, of Sacramento, Calif., has experienced the surprise of seeing photos she’d long forgotten about continue to exist on the Internet.

“I looked up my name on Google, and I saw all these pictures of me in elementary school through MySpace,” Edwards said.

While Edwards knows not to put her social security number or anything scandalous on social media pages, she can’t possibly keep track of everything she’s posted on the Internet.

The fact that all of that information will never go away, even after you’ve forgotten it was posted, should be a scary notion, said Isaac Wolkerstorfer, a Berlin-based software developer for Asana.com.

“If you post something to a blog or Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else on the ‘Net, you can never be sure someone hasn’t made a copy of it,” Wolkerstorfer said.

Wolkerstorfer advises that Internet users make peace with the idea that once you post information, it’s out there and you can no longer control who sees or takes it. As a basic rule, anything that you feel uncomfortable about a stranger seeing, simply don’t share it.

KNOW YOUR PATH

More succinctly, Eric Tornoe, a computer security expert at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, uses a co-worker’s poster slogan as a guide for how to approach the Internet.

“Stop. Think. Click.”

After all, when it comes to the way computers work, “permanent pretty much means permanent.”

“Most of the stuff on the web is living on a hard drive somewhere, and it doesn’t cost a whole lot to store. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of and it stays there forever,” Tornoe said. “When you erase a disk drive, that data is still almost as easy to get back as it is if you haven’t erased the drive. (Experts) don’t consider anything truly secure unless you physically destroy the drive.”

Think of your path on the Internet as leaving a permanent footprint. No matter where you go or what you delete, no matter how often you clear your search history, someone with computer expertise can track that footprint through a log of activity, Tornoe said.

So, if a company complains that someone at the university is illegally downloading music or movies, St. Thomas technicians will check the user ID on the computer at the time of the download, Tornoe said.

“Once the complaint is verified, we send a letter to the user explaining that this is a copyright violation and advise them to stop sharing the file or risk further legal action from the copyright owner,” he said. “We also offer help to the user to stop sharing these files, as many times users are not even aware they are doing so.”

BE AWARE OF DIGITAL PROPERTY

What remains “living” on the Internet is just as important as what you choose to keep for yourself, said Jim Lamm, an attorney with Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty.

Lamm specializes in a field he calls “digital passing.” Since everything on the Internet is permanent, it’s become more essential than ever to think about how to protect your footprint in the event that you or a loved one dies.

Lamm advises clients to keep track of all their usernames and passwords, and much like a digital will, authorize representatives to take legal action of disposing them or passing them on based on your last requests. If you don’t leave your password for your family members or friends, they won’t be able to access your information.

“Be aware of your digital property and its value,” Lamm said. “Make a list, develop a plan and make sure somebody has the legal authority to execute the plan.”

After all, everything you’ve posted or that has been posted of you – whether it’s a newborn baby photo or life inside a senior citizen home – will be around long after you’re gone.

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