Respect Privacy by Laws, Not Deletion

We've argued that most of us will end up storing almost all digital information indefinitely, because:

  • Storage is getting cheaper and faster all the time.
  • The costs of deletion are greater than keeping digital information.
  • A (very) small proportion of old digital information will actually be of some value.
  • It's surprisingly hard to delete information.

For example, see our past bulletins, Expect to Archive Everything, and You, Dear Reader, Are Immortal.

On the other hand, preserving privacy is an excellent reason to delete information. For example, a bank might wish to retain confidential information on a customer only so long as is necessary, because otherwise that information might later leak out, for example via a disaffected employee.

Software analyst Curt Monash recently argued that rather than pass laws that require that information be deleted, laws should instead prohibit certain types of use of stored information:

  • Vast amounts of sensitive information about us are being stored -- our emails and instant messages, things we've purchased, adult Web sites we visit, files we share, cellphone locations, etc.
  • The information is stored in very many different places, such as servers and local hard disks at work, on PCs at home, places in the cloud, memory sticks, etc.
  • There's not much that can be done about the existence of this information. It's utterly out of control, even if we were to restrict the information concerned to that maintained by a single organization.
  • Big Brother, unethical businesses, and other malevolent forces will be sorely tempted to seek out and misuse stored information in ways that intrude on people's freedoms and privacy.
  • The best way to handle this is not by requiring that the information be deleted--this is impractical. Instead, laws should be passed that prohibit stored information being used in particular ways.

To learn more about Curt's views, see this short essay. He's probably right. An invitation-only conference to explore the idea further will take place in October 2010, at Stanford University, California. Your current interlocutor is fortunate in that he's been invited. This is an important issue and he plans to attend.

... David Ferris

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