The myth of deleted data

Remember the cautionary tale of “Be careful what you post on the Internet; it will be out there forever”? Turns out, that warning applies to much more than just the Internet.

You may assume that whenever you change jobs and turn in your old mobile device, all your information gets wiped from the device. However, deleting that data off the face of that device doesn’t necessarily mean the data is actually gone.

According to J.R. Reagan, U.S. federal chief information officer at Deloitte, “we’ve gone past that line, where data is truly deletable.”

“We’re all now in this mode of creating digital exhaust,” he said. “In all of the things we do, we’re constantly producing information, and it raises the question of what happens to all of that data over time.”


A big challenge in data deletion is that data doesn’t always live on the device. There’s currently no way to tell if data has been transferred or duplicated from a mobile device. In the same respect, when a hard drive is “wiped,” it’s impossible to know whether data on that drive is somewhere on another device.

This is an issue Reagan raised in last week’s blog post titled, “Are we creating a digital landfill?” The potential for the amount of data to be stored is virtually limitless. Data storage is more available than ever, and people are constantly detailing their personal and professional life on the Internet. That paired with improved data aggregation programs has made the average Internet user’s life a digital open book.

An idea gaining traction in Europe known as “the right to be forgotten” is addressing what happens to data after someone dies or if someone simply want his or her online presence erased. Privacy advocacy groups in the U.S. have picked up the issue, and advocate for individuals to have the ability to delete their own data whenever, even information that is public.

Since January 2012, the Data Protection Regulation has been debated by many in the European Union, particularly the content of Article 17, which includes “the right to be forgotten.”

The controversy arising over the proposal has even continued on this side of the Atlantic. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology published a paper in response to Article 17 stating it “risks jeopardizing the rights of Internet users, failing to set out an appropriate system to balance between individuals’ data-protection rights and the free expression rights of others.”


The U.S. doesn’t have a mandatory data deletion policy in place, and nor will it ever, according to Reagan.

“There will be a lot of attempts to force data deletion, and privacy issues will always be there,” he said. “And those ideas of data deletion will constantly be at odds with people who have a real desire to digitally catalogue their lives. But there won’t ever be a legal enforcement to delete data permanently.”

The amount of data being stored has drastically increased in the last three years, and it’s only expected to expand even further. As technology gets more advanced, storage will be more accessible and individuals will want to store more. Already, the world is seeing the evolution of 3-D holographics, and the ability to store things in three dimensions.

Reagan said the issue of data deletion is a contextual one. People’s feelings on being digitally erased are “schizophrenic” — they want the good to stay and the bad to be deleted, he said.

It’s also an ethical issue; data storage allows for great amounts of research to be done, and many believe it is beneficial for future generations.


“It becomes a moral issue when you consider someone’s digital memory being erased from the face of the earth,” Reagan said. “Data storage allows us to track many important factors, for example, immigration patterns. Then, there’s the more simple reasoning: that some people may just want to know about your life.”

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