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Explainers

Delete Doesn’t Mean Delete

October 7th, 2021

The “delete” key doesn’t exactly live up to its name. In fact, in the digital world, delete doesn’t mean delete at all. It’s just another twist in the great digital experiment.

You can trash your emails, but the person who received your messages still has them and can store them as long as he or she wants. Even if you convince your correspondents to delete their copies, your email host can archive data for years after you think it’s gone.

The same goes for the servers that make communication between devices possible. Your chat sessions, your direct messages and your posts—erase them all you want, they still exist somewhere.

And here’s a worrisome fact about digital privacy to consider: Data stored on servers is retrievable without your knowledge or permission. The technical support team at the company that offers you email service can examine your messages (for legitimate purposes, such as to troubleshoot a performance or security issue). Remember: delete doesn’t mean delete.

If an Internet service provider receives a search warrant from law enforcement officers for your information, their security team may provide it to them without your ever having been aware of the release.

Using a work- or school-issued laptop of smartphone to send personal messages is a bad idea for any number of reasons—you’re supposed to use that equipment to work, after all. Your employer is allowed to access servers to see your messages when you use company equipment. Likewise, private companies where you have an account can access your data too, since they have backup copies to refer to even if you believe you’ve successfully deleted it on your end.

What can parents do? Awareness is an important first step. For one, you should underscore to your family that once you release information, it’s no longer in your control. Emphasize to children the importance of thinking twice before sending a message or post a comment online.

Avoid sending sensitive information through insecure channels like social media, email or DMs, since all of that data is stored on companies’ servers and archived in multiple backup servers in different locations. Your “delete” key just doesn’t have any authority in that territory.

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