7 Feb 2008

Hitting the Delete key – not as easy as we like

We’ve blogged here before about the burgeoning data portability movement. The appealing aspect of data portability is that it would make it easy for us to essentially copy and paste our personal information from one place into a new place.

But another aspect of data portability could and should be the ability to move your personal information right off the Internet altogether. Jean Burgess, a researcher based in Australia, recently blogged about the frustrations of removing herself from the social networking site Facebook. She writes:

“Oh, and by the way, in order to delete your Facebook account, apparently, you have to not only deactivate it, but also delete every single item you have contributed to the site (messages, wall posts, posts other people have written on your wall, photos, links to contacts, profile information) and then email customer service and request they delete your account completely. Oh, and also, in order to delete absolutely everything, I’d also have to re-add every single one of the applications I’ve ever had installed, and then go through and remove the content, and then delete the applications again. Because when you delete an application, guess what? Your data is still stored there somewhere.”

Sites like this (and the software developers that partner with them) don’t make it easy to take back your digital footprint. And they likely won’t change their practices until a critical mass of users start to clamour for change.

6 Responses

Blaise Alleyne Says:

Well, from what I know, that’s true but a bit misleading.

When you deactivate your Facebook account, your data is still stored in their databases, but from a user perspective you never existed. Try telling a Facebook user who’s had their account suspended that it’s hard to remove your digital footprint; it feels like some Facebook secret service has erased you.

So, Facebook makes it very, very easy to remove all of your data from view on the site. But, as you point out, it’s near impossible to actually permanently delete that data from their servers.

Milan Says:

Most of the privacy concerns about Facebook seem to centre around lack of proper warning and explanation being provided to users. If the site was more forward about explaining how widely available information stored there is, people would be able to make more intelligent decisions about how to behave on the site.

dguerrero Says:

Milan, your suggestion that Facebook be more transparent is interesting in light of this. Facebook’s chief privacy officer, in an interview with PC World, addresses that very issue.

Intrepid Says:

Here’s an interesting writeup of how difficult the deletion of public data is through Facebook: http://www.idm.net.au/storypages/story-ecomm.asp?id=9168

D. Anderson Says:

From: D. Anderson


I. The Issue:

I am concerned about the implications of the February 2008 federal budget regarding proposed changes to compulsory identification documents for two types of Canadians-

* those who travel abroad
* those who operate all types of motor vehicles.

I am also concerned about the February 2008 federal budget regarding changes to compulsory procedures for certain foreign nationals, i.e. those who are obliged to apply for visas before arriving in Canada.

II. Basic human rights problems arising from changes
to compulsory identification documents and visa procedures:

1) compulsory biometric scanning is an intrusion on personal freedom and privacy;

2) computer chips storing biometric scanning data and functioning as tracking devices pose a threat to individual personal security and provide a new means for dictatorships and other criminal groups to identify, track, harm, and eliminate their victims.

III. Canadian problems in particular:

1) changes to the compulsory federal government identification document
required by all Canadians who travel abroad:

* The federal budget says that beginning in 2011, Canadians wishing to travel abroad will be forced to submit to biometric scanning in order to obtain a Canadian passport.

If Canadians do not submit, they will not be issued passports.

These Canadians will also be forced to carry passports with computer chips containing the biometric data and functioning as tracking devices.

If the chips are inadvertently damaged or deactivated in order to ensure personal privacy abroad, the bearers will be denied re-entry into Canada. These Canadians may also face criminal charges for damaging or destroying government property. A Canadian passport “is the property of the government of Canada. It must not be altered.”

* Compulsory biometric scanning and computer chip passports are clearly a drastic and radical alteration of the conditions imposed on Canadians wishing to freely leave and enter Canada.


* Until very recent years, Canadians required only two photos and a guarantor of their identity in order to obtain a passport.

* A couple of years ago, Canadians were asked to provide the names of some personal references in addition to the photo guarantor.

* In the 2007 passport renewal application, Canadians were further obliged to list all their addresses during the past several years.

There is apparently no end to the escalation of these compulsory conditions for entering and leaving Canada.

There is no apparent end to or restriction on this data mining and no apparent protection for Canadians wishing to protect their privacy and personal lives from escalating intrusions by the nation-state, which is supposed to serve and not to abuse honest, law-abiding people.

There is no appeal or refusal procedure for Canadians who object in principle to the proliferation of compulsory, non-negotiable demands from the ministry issuing passports.
A Canadian can be a conscientious objector to a war, but Canadians have no option except absolute, unquestioning obedience to the passport office, Canadians have no option except to surrender their constitutional right to freely leave and re-enter Canada.

Canadians refusing to submit to biometric scanning and to carrying the computer chip passports can never get a passport. Thus, they can never buy an international travel ticket, can never board an international passenger carrier, and can never obtain a visa to visit another country.

Canadians who refuse to comply with each and every new condition imposed by passport law will be denied the right to freely leave and enter Canada, a right which is supposedly guaranteed to all honest, law-abiding Canadians in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

2) changes to compulsory provincial identification document
required by all Canadians who operate all types of motor vehicles;

The February 2008 federal budget also promises $6 million in funding to provincial governments to defray the costs of creating new driver’s licenses which include the same type of technology planned for Canadian passports.

That means provincial governments will force all Canadians operating all types of motor vehicles to submit to biometric scanning and to carry driver’s licenses which can function as tracking devices.

This is far worse than the passport problem for two reasons:

1) There are far more Canadian operators of motor vehicles than Canadians who travel abroad.
2) Canadians find it convenient to carry a driver’s license in their wallets at all times, so they will never forget it at home. So Canadian drivers can be tracked all the time, everywhere they go, even when they are not driving, eg. when they are walking, jogging, cycling, working, socializing at a friend’s home, going to the movies, shopping, borrowing library books, having a clandestine affair, attending political party meetings or marching in demonstrations.

Thus any person wishing to operate a motor vehicle will be required by law to surrender his/her rights to privacy and personal freedom everywhere that s/he goes when s/he is carrying a driver’s license in his/her wallet. The provincial governments can use the driver’s license as a tracking device to prepare thorough dossiers on millions of Canadian drivers (without any need for arranging court-approved surveillance or a legal warrant). The dossiers will record each driver’s daily routines and activities, known associates, interests, character, political opinions, voting preferences*, etc.

(*A violation of secret ballot law is an offence in Canadian law. It’s too late to turn off the computer chip after the carrier has entered a political party rally or a candidate’s office or meeting place.)

3) changes to compulsory federal government procedures for certain foreign nationals, i.e. those who are obliged to apply for visas before arriving in Canada.

The federal budget says that all foreign nationals requiring visas to enter Canada will be forced to submit to biometric scanning and to carry visas containing computer chips which function as tracking devices.

The Soviet Union would be envious. To get a Soviet Union visa, visitors were forced to file a travel plan, to stick to it, and to prove they were sticking to it by reporting to the police along the way. The new Canadian visa technology would have saved the KGB a lot of paper work and surveillance time, and helped the Soviet Union make sure that Solzhenitsyn, and other dissidents had no secret visitors from abroad.

Thus Canada’s new visa technology can only make Canada look like a police state to the outside world and permanently destroy Canada’s credibility and reputation as a supporter of human rights, justice, freedom, and democracy around the world. How can we ever again oppose injustice abroad if we practice it at home against foreign visitors?

In India, Canada’s new personal surveillance technology might be compared with General Smuts’ law forcing all Indians in South Africa submit to compulsory fingerprinting. Mahatma Gandhi led a campaign against that law. History should not put Canada on the same page as General Smuts.

IV. Major Human Concerns:

The Canadian and worldwide consequences of the scanning and tracking aspects of the federal budget have obviously not been carefully thought out in Ottawa.

First and foremost, the federal budget’s proposed changes to both federal and provincial compulsory identification documents and to visa procedures encourages the spread of biometric scanning and computer chip storage and tracking devices everywhere in the world.

That means increasing the markets and sales for biometric scanning and computer chip tracking devices, stimulating both demand and supply, and thus reducing the unit costs of production, distribution, and sales.

Thus biometric scanning and computer chip storage/tracking device technology becomes more accessible to more consumers in the private market, regulated or not.

The problems arising are clear when seen in the contexts of:

1) today’s Burma under the military dictatorship,
2) attempts to suppress the Dali Lama & Tibet’s resistance movement,
3) prolonging North Korea’s dictatorship,
4) the 1990’s genocide in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda,
5) Nazi Germany’s Holocaust,
6) hunting down people who fled the Tiananmen Square massacre,
7) South Africa’s former, oppressive apartheid minority rule dictatorship,
8) mass murders during General Pinochet’s 15 year dictatorship in Chile,
9) killing all opposition leaders in Uganda under Amin’s dictatorship,
10) death squad murders in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America,
11) General Franco’s four decade fascist dictatorship in Spain,
12) the terror of the Duvalier family’s 29 year dictatorship in Haiti,
13) torture and murder by Brazil’s 20 year military dictatorship,
14) East Berlin guards trying to stop people from escaping,
15) kidnappers working for guerrillas and drug lords in Colombia and Ecuador,
16) KGB domestic spying activities in the Soviet Union.

There are many more examples, stretching back to Europe’s Inquisitions and beyond.

In all of the above contexts, biometric scanning and computer chip storage and tracking devices would serve as excellent means of helping terrible villains to identify, locate, kidnap, torture, and murder dissidents, freedom fighters, pro-democracy leaders, news reporters, intellectuals, elected politicians, and everyone else.

That technological proliferation makes no one safe or secure. That technological proliferation means that no one can hide out and escape imprisonment, torture, and murder.

That technological proliferation means there can be no future Lech Walensa, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu, Donald Wood, Rigoberta Menchú, Dalai Lama, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Mahatma Gandhi. Proliferation of the new “security” technology means that people like them can be quietly tracked and eliminated before they can have any impact whatsoever. They can disappear more rapidly and easily than the children of the “Madres de Mayo” in Buenos Aires.

Of course organized crime can also gain from the spread of biometric scanning and computer chip tracking devices. Organized crime can use hackers to take identity theft to a new level of sophistication, by changing the names stored with the biometric scans in the data banks. This can help criminals escape capture and can increase the number of cases of false arrests. It can put innocent people behind bars until they can somehow establish their true identities.

(Add those innocents to many other people already being held around the world today, indefinitely, without charges laid, without the right to legal representation, bail, or due process, as if they were put away in the dungeons of Europe’s old regime despots. Let’s not turn the clock back any further in the pursuit of justice.)

Using hackers, organized crime can also make use of biometric scanning and computer chip tracking technology to find anyone, anywhere, making more people easier prey for robbery, burglary, kidnapping, and extortion. Witnesses can be made more reluctant to testify against criminals in court. Witness protection becomes much more difficult.

The February 2008 federal budget is unwittingly aiding, abetting, and contributing to outcomes that no good, reasonable person wants, such as prolonging dictatorships, worsening and increasing genocide, making it more difficult to stop human trafficking, creating higher tech stalkers, and increasing the success rate of organized crime.

The February 2008 federal budget helps give the enemies of democracy, freedom, justice, and law some very powerful new weapons for both their technological and propaganda arsenals.

D. Anderson Says:

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