Popular social networking site Facebook has been plagued with several breach of privacy issues. First, there was the user agreement that said, effectively, that Facebook could mine for information about the user from anywhere on the Internet.
Then Facebook launched an advertising service, Beacon, which could track your activities on a number of third-party websites and use the information to serve you ads on the Facebook website.
Now, a series of articles in The New York Times has exposed the inability of users to leave the service and delete all personal data. Even after closing their accounts, users discovered that personal information was retained on Facebook servers. Facebook eventually, in response to the outcry, offered users the option to leave without a trace.
Each day millions of new user accounts are created across a myriad services on the Web. Many of these services, such as blogs, photo storage, placement and social networks, allow the user to host large quantities of private information on their servers. Negligible cost of storage means that much of this data will remain accessible to the browsing public indefinitely into the future—well after the user himself has stopped using the site and moved on to other sites where he uploads everything all over again.
Just take Facebook, for instance. The site handles approximately 30 million searches a day. More than 1.7 billion photos have been uploaded (around 44 per user). A quarter million new users sign up every day adding to this vast ocean of data.
With the Internet a ubiquitous part of life, perhaps it is time the user had the means to track and manage his footprint on the Web. Universal login services such as OpenID, which facilitates a single login and password across multiple websites, could be one way. Services such as Facebook’s new form which allows users to wipe clean their profiles completely must become standard on all websites.
For now, the onus is on the user to manage the trail he or she leaves behind online. Online services are cool, no doubt, but without some sort of Internet discipline we could all be finding ourselves in a very uncool place: a Google search result page.
(How should users manage their digital footprint? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org)