If the latest news were any indicator, we are becoming an increasingly digitized and virtualized culture, with one glaring and fatal flaw: our inability to realize how vulnerable our real life is to our digital footprint.
Look at the mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, whose life was turned upside down by the discovery of text messages he sent to his romantic partner (who happened to be not his wife). Or consider Arlington Mayor Carmen Kontur-Gronquist, “… who was disqualified from office last month after leaving unlimited photos of herself in her underwear on her MySpace page,” says New York Times writer Susan Dominus. (When asked why she posted such personal photos on such a popular public website, she replied, “This is my space,” pointing to naivety about the Internet, which is both peculiar and frighteningly inaccessible to someone in a public office.)
If there is one modern slogan that we should all take to heart on this matter, it is: The Internet is eternal.
Unfortunately, this is something that many of us – especially people over the age of 20 – do not fully absorb. That’s what happened to Mayor Kilpatrick, who apparently thought that deleting his messages from his PDA would be enough to completely wipe them out of digital reality. The same goes for former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who simply did not understand the ease with which his suspicious financial transactions (all of which take place via internet connections between the point of purchase, their accounting offices, financial institutions, and many other venues today. times) could be traced, related and displayed.
Today’s generation is most at risk. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to post pictures on their MySpace pages, YouTube videos or blogs that show they are drunk, drunk, engaging in suspicious activities, and so on. Many are unaware of the impact these public expressions of bad judgment will have on future employers, on university admissions committees, and even on potential colleagues. And just deleting or deleting images and posts does not offer any protection. Sites like Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) (also known as the Wayback Machine) and search engines are constantly caching copies of older pages, keeping these embarrassing or incriminating images for posterity.
In the world of almost ubiquitous access to the Internet, almost permanent digital content and almost complete archives of cyberspace history, the concept of digital hygiene is gaining more and more importance.
Here are some things to remember:
1. As I mentioned, the internet is eternal. If you upload it, post it, share it, or publish it, chances are it will be there until the last server goes down. Deleting the copy at your end doesn’t get you anywhere. The corollary of this principle is that if she can hurt or embarrass you, hope to be found at the worst possible time. Rule of thumb: never post anything you don’t want your grandma, boss, or worst enemy to see.
2. Anyone can find anything. With enough time, access, and interest, a motivated seeker can find anything that is or has ever been publicly or legally available (and hackers can find anything else). Suppose everything – including emails, text messages, purchases, financial transactions, personal information, images, and so on – is public, searchable, and findable, no matter how well you feel you’ve covered your tracks or how much you believe you are anonymous.
3. Practice self-examination regularly. Google it yourself and see what comes out. Browse the Internet Archive and see how much of your previous cyber life is still publicly searchable. Make a note to keep an eye on what is available about you and how you plan to fix the issue if it occurs.
As a last resort, you can sometimes remove harmful content from certain search engines or databases. But don’t count on saving your bacon if you’ve been naughty. You will never delete every copy from every source. The best course of action is to just behave and stop assuming that because you are one of the millions of internet users you will somehow get lost in the crowd. The internet can be a busy place, but it’s also a very public, open place. And if you hang around naked with a beer bong tied to your head, someone will notice.