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Why your online identity can never really be erased

Taylor Armerding | Aug. 5, 2014
An EU court has ruled that its citizens have 'the right to be forgotten.' Privacy experts say it is possible to make certain information harder to find, but that it is not going to disappear.

"It is no longer reasonable or even possible for the right to privacy to allow data subjects a right to remove links to data which are accurate and lawfully available," the committee said.

Meyer wrote that no one so far has been able to resolve what he called a "fundamental paradox ... the internet's very nature pushes a certain transmit-it-all, retain-it-all ethos that is possibly impossible to stop, but that also flies in the face of privacy principles held very deeply by many countries and citizens.

"Somebody, please, find a realistic way to fix this," he wrote, noting that the stakes are high -- that people's lives can be destroyed, "by random comments they made online as kids."

If there is a way to fix it, it will likely take more than government. Privacy advocates also agree that individuals need to take responsibility for their own privacy.

One way, which is somewhat after the fact, is for people to turn themselves into a "virtual entity" -- a technique profiled in CSO several years ago. Professional skip tracer Frank Ahern said he helps clients open a corporation and conduct all their activities through that.

"Everything about you exists under the corporation," he said. 'The address doesn't have to be in the same city you're in. The goal is to make you virtual and have you communicate virtually through this corporation."

Another technique, Ahern said, is to "create confusion" with multiple, bogus identities. "We develop about 15 to 20 web sites and create all these social media sites around you. Now if you are traveling somewhere and someone puts your name in, they are going to locate those 20 other people before they get to you."

But even that, he and others agree, is less foolproof than simply being much more careful about what you put online. Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice and a former White House CIO and social media expert, said neither governments nor hired service providers can protect you, "if you do not take steps to protect yourself."

She offered a basic list that she said everyone should follow:

- Take sensitive information and conversations offline.

- Leverage two factor authentication and encryption to add a layer of protection.

- Use communication tools that let you set expiration dates on your messages

- Use features such as Google's Incognito browser

- Abide by the "Grandma Rule and the Bad Guy Rule." Ask yourself, "Would I be embarrassed if Grandma saw this post?"(And, "If a bad guy saw this, could he hurt me or my loved ones?" If yes, leave it offline.

But, she agrees that people need help from government, since they don't always have complete control over what is posted about them.


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