Digital footsteps

If you’ve ventured onto the Net, your past may follow you in ways you’d never imagine

Illustration by SalonOur past now follows us as never before. For centuries, refugees sailed the Atlantic to start new lives. Easterners pulled up stakes and moved west to California. Today, reinvention and second chances come less easily. You may leave town, but your electronic shadow stays behind, as anyone who has ventured onto the Internet well knows.

We often view the Internet as a communication medium or an information-retrieval tool, but it’s also a powerful archiving medium that takes snapshots of our digital lives — and can store those fleeting images forever.

Not only are official documents and consumer profiles being collected on each of us, but the very essence of our daily online existence: Our political opinions, prejudices, religious beliefs, sexual tastes and personal quirks are all becoming part of an immense, organic media soup that is congealing into a permanent public record. What is different about the digital archiving phenomenon is that our beliefs, habits and indiscretions are being preserved for anyone to see — friends, relatives, rivals, lovers, neighbors, bosses, landlords, even obsessed stalkers.

Take all those homespun Web pages out there. People assume that their home pages disappear once they pull the plug. Not necessarily. While your browser may report a “404: File Not Found” when you call up an offline Web page, those pages live on in other electronic nooks and crannies. Since 1996, the Internet Archive, a kind of digital warehouse, has been trolling the Web and hoarding everything it comes across — text, images, sound clips. Every two months, it scoops up the entire Web and stores the results on its virtual shelves. It has preserved my expired site, and it may well have yours.

Bulletin board messages live on far after the threads peter out. The e-mails we send to the Internet’s 33,000 newsgroups often fall off the edge of Usenet after a week or so, but the postings live on in databases like Deja News and the Internet Archive.

Mailing lists, where people toss off casual correspondences as if writing to a close-knit group of friends, are often archived for all the world to see. Marie Coady, a free-lance writer in Woburn, Mass., was appalled to discover that her posts to online-news, a small, cozy listserv of 1,350 news professionals, had been posted on the Web and summarily stored by dozens of search engines — instantaneously available to tens of millions of readers.

“When I typed my name into a search engine and found everything I’ve ever written online, I felt violated and helpless,” she says. “It was like coming home and finding someone had gone through my personal belongings. I consider it an invasion of privacy to have words typed in response to a query chiseled in stone. In light of our litigious society, it could be dangerous to post any message at all.” Although the moderator posts occasional notices that mention the list’s public archiving policy, not all listserv hosts do so, and few users bother to read the fine print.

“The odd thing is, we perceive the Net as a conversation and not as public record, and it turns out to be public record to a larger extent than people are aware of,” said Bruce Schneier, a cryptography consultant and co-editor of “The Electronic Privacy Papers,” a 1997 book. “You can easily imagine in 20 years a candidate being asked about a conversation he had in a chat room while he was in college. We’re becoming a world where everything is recorded.”

Beyond the question of informed consent lie larger questions: Should all of this electronic flotsam and jetsam be archived in the first place? What are the consequences for us if our digital footprints survive indefinitely? Who should decide whether they do survive?

The answers are hardly comforting, especially for those given to strong displays of emotion or opinion online. “We’re now entering an era where tens of millions of people are speaking on the record without any understanding of what it means to speak on the record, and that’s certainly unprecedented,” says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “It is suddenly becoming impossible to escape your past.”

Your children and grandchildren not yet born will be able to reconstruct a record of your digital life — not just the good stuff but also the best-forgotten postings to alt.sex.fish or rec.nude. The Web shrine you once erected to an old flame, with its hyperventilating vows of eternal devotion, may give pause to a new lover in your life. The union solidarity page you put up at your first job — years before you were bucking for senior management — may come back to haunt your efforts to get a promotion. And who would have predicted that your Senate candidacy would go down in flames when your political opponent uncovered the image-rich homage to porn star Ashlyn Gere you posted in college?

Most people don’t have posterity in mind when they fire off notes or post Web pages. Observes Schneier: “When you’re in college and posting things online, you’re young and immortal and you don’t think about the impact your words will have five minutes from now, much less five, 10 or 20 years down the road.”

WE CAN ALREADY SEE the outlines of this new world. When you apply for a job in the high-tech sector, there’s a fair chance your prospective employer will use a search engine to scout out your online postings, from late-night musings to intemperate rants fired off to a political news group. Would an employer’s decision be colored by information that has nothing to do with a candidate’s job qualifications, such as your out-of-the-mainstream religious beliefs, sexual orientation, HIV status or personal habits? Absolutely, and without apology. After all, “character” counts, too.

Federal law makes it a crime for agencies to compare most digital information about U.S. citizens, points out Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University and author of “Privacy in the Information Age.” But nothing prevents private companies or individuals from doing so. Criminal convictions, driving records, property records and voter registration records might be available with a few keystrokes.

Should employers, neighbors and descendants not yet born be able to poke around in the digital attic for information about you?

Cate believes there are good reasons why we shouldn’t be so concerned. “It’s the democratizing of Big Brother, and that’s not such a bad thing,” he says. “You can find out as much about your boss as he can about you. I’m not really happy that someone down the hall can follow me and make a database about me, but that’s the way it is in the digital age. If your feelings get bruised, tough. If the information’s true and not distorted, then you’re stuck with the things you said online years ago. I don’t see this as a privacy issue.”

Perhaps not in the narrowest sense. But if every online expression becomes fodder for somebody’s professional, personal or political agenda, clearly we lose certain freedoms of expression in the bargain. Do you really want to live next door to Big Brother, even a more democratic one?

Says Sobel: “If you define privacy as the right of individuals to control information about themselves, as we do, then mega-archiving systems clearly raise significant privacy issues. These systems convert every passing thought and contemporaneous musing into a permanent, retrievable record — without, in many cases, the knowledge or consent of the creator.”

Even Brewster Kahle, who founded the nonprofit Internet Archive and its commercial offshoot, Alexa Internet, says, “There are some tricky issues here. A lot of this material is public, but is it really meant to endure?”

What Kahle is doing is nothing less than extraordinary. Alexa’s 34 employees, working in a century-old building in San Francisco’s Presidio, sends out “spiders” to crawl the Web and Usenet and store the text, video and audio on a digital jukebox tape drive. It takes about two months to capture all 300 million-plus publicly accessible Web pages. So far they’ve scooped up 12 terabytes of content, or 12 trillion bytes. (By comparison, the Library of Congress holds 20 terabytes of content and — interesting factoid here — Wal-Mart’s data warehouse in Bentonville, Arkansas, holds 43 terabytes of data.)

Kahle says he launched his project because “we need to preserve our digital heritage. Unless we start saving it, every passing day we’re losing the record of one of the great turning points in human history.” His Internet Archive and Alexa have drawn widespread praise from academics, historians and Net luminaries concerned that the Web’s pioneer days may soon become irretrievably lost. For researchers and scholars, it’s a field day. For the rest of us, it’s a mixed blessing.

SOBEL CITES A LETTER he just received from a stockbroker who was distraught about a new database, compiled by the National Association of Security Dealers, profiling the backgrounds of stockbrokers nationwide. “He had a felony conviction 23 years ago, when he was in his 20s. And now that information is about to become searchable online for the first time. He thinks this is outrageous and I tend to agree with him.”

Individuals can’t even prevent private indiscretions from winding up as part of the Internet’s global voyeurism machine. “I just got a phone call from a distraught mother whose 16-year-old daughter’s ex-boyfriend posted nude photos of her on the Web,” Sobel says. “The photos were consensual when they were taken. So suddenly it’s part of the public domain, and even if the mother persuades him to take them down, he may no longer have control over how long this stuff is out there. This teenage girl may have to live with that for the rest of her life.”

Kahle offers another example: “The president’s personal home page is probably in our archives now — the person who’ll become president in 20 or 30 years. You know that he or she is the kind of person who already has a Web page up in college.”

Are we condemned, then, to a future where journalists will pore over every online college-age musing of a prospective president? It appears that way.

“I’m still struggling with the issues raised by this,” Sobel says. “We need a public debate to redefine the concepts of what should be private and public. Should anyone be able to type your name into a search engine and come up with public records about your private life? What good are laws that expunge a crime from your record if the old records remain accessible to anyone on the Net? What about information that’s misleading, inaccurate, or that you had no idea was out there in cyberspace?”

Kahle is well aware of the debate, and he’s working with legal experts, historians and privacy advocates to determine the best way to make archived material available. “I used to be very oriented toward privacy, trying to keep track of who knows what about me,” he said. “I’ve become less fanatical about it, because I find that it’s more valuable to be found than for me to be obscure. For those who don’t want to be found, we should let them be.”

One may well ask: Do we have that option anymore? As the Net becomes ubiquitous, its underlying essence of interconnectedness and community come with a price: the loss of anonymity. We are being drawn forcibly, inexorably, into the global town square.

That is no reason to avoid the Internet (as if we could!). It is becoming inextricably woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. That’s as it should be, for the Net is a gift, connecting us with like-minded individuals around the world, letting us interact in soul-stirring ways. But we need to be aware that our digital footprints are permanent ones, because the Net has forgotten how to forget.

This can be both blessing and curse. For many of us, it would be marvelous for our grandchildren to summon up our very first home page. For others, whose online forays may not be the stuff of posterity, a gentle forgetfulness would be far kinder.

Once, words were spoken and vanished like vapor in the air. Newsprint faded and turned to dust. Today, our pasts have become etched like a tattoo into our digital skins.

This article appeared on the cover of the Washington Post’s Outlook section and in Salon magazine in November 1998. I’m republishing it here on its 10-year anniversary.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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