Can your online information ever be private or fully protected? Aside from hackers, what about protection from the prying eyes of the federal government?
You probably already know the answer. If you don't, you won't like what follows.
There really isn't a way to completely secure and privatize your content after it's placed onto the Internet. And the reason is simple: all information--including the sentences you write, the photos and videos you post, and the documents you upload--all carve out their own unique digital space.
This isn't a problem if it's you're pinning your aunt Hattie's slow roasted pork recipe on Pinterest. However, the situation may be considerably more dire if that photo of you making an inappropriate gesture is posted to Facebook--(think, former U.s. Senator Al Franken). Or, maybe if that video of you and your buddies tossing a bag of mandarins at a school bus finds its way to Instagram. Even if you deleted that Tweet where you brutally criticized your former boss, the content isn't really gone. Nothing in cyberspace ever goes away and there are several reasons why it can't be killed off.
When you post information online, your data is stored on a hard drive. It may be a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) with a read/write head and magnetic platters that store data. Or, it could be a Solid State Drive (SSD), which stores data on integrated flash memory chips. Your data may be in chunks and spread across multiple hard drives, but the concept is the same. Hard drives are considered "non-volatile" storage; meaning, when the power is turned off, you don't lose your data. Your data is stored on a hard drive and even if "deleted", the content may still be available if the storage space it previously occupied hasn't been overwritten with new content.
Also, massive server farms--like those owned and operated by Facebook, Google and Apple--use massive backup systems that retain copies of everything that has ever been stored on their servers. So, not only do their hard drives hold your data, their backup hard drives, and the hard drives that backup those also retain data for redundancy and recovery purposes. In other words, deleting data doesn't directly remove it. If it did, it would mean having the ability to directly manipulate internal data structures (e.g. file systems, databases) and that's a big no-no.
But, it's not just user-supplied data. Our personal information--like social security numbers, credit card numbers, and financial histories--is supposed to be protected by the corporations possessing that information. Unfortunately, most don't do a great job securing their own systems. When you think about recent security breaches and the resulting theft of data from large corporations like Target, Wells Fargo, Equifax, and the hundreds of others, the depth of data loss becomes much clearer and scarier.
We entrust large corporations with our data because we have been conditioned to believe the bigger and more reputable the corporation, the better prepared they are to secure information and protect against data loss in the event of a cyber attack. After all, don't billion dollar businesses have faster computers, stronger network encryption, and the best cyber security analysts to not only protect business data, but also to protect customer data?
In April 2018, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and later appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Facebook was summoned to appear following the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal, which may have exposed the private information of approximately 87 million users during the 2016 U.S. elections. Zuckerberg agreed to testify after weeks of uncertainty over whether he would agree to meet with lawmakers.
This isn't really Zuckerberg's fault though. Sure--Facebook needs to do a better job of tracking and controlling access to vital user information, and every other company in possession of sensitive content needs to do the same. Congressional leaders will lob difficult questions and accusations at Zuckerberg in an attempt to appease the public, but Zuckerberg--as ridiculously smart as he is--can't protect your data with 100% certainty.
The world's hackers--whether Russian, North Korean, or Chinese--will always find ways to circumvent the security practices we employ. It's just the nature of the beast.
The only true way to protect information and data is to never post it on the Internet. Once it is written in a Facebook post, Twitter feed, or uploaded to IG, a digital footprint is forever created and there is no way to make it disappear forever.