In his testimony and whistleblowing, Zatko claimed that Twitter does not reliably delete user data, in some cases because it has lost tracking information. Twitter has widely defended itself against Zatko’s allegations, saying his disclosure paints a “wrong narrative” about the company. In response to questions from CNN, Twitter previously said it has workflows to “initiate the deletion process” but did not say if it normally completes this process.
While Zatko’s claims are startling, they were another reminder of Sandra Matz’s “how often we are oblivious” in sharing our data online.
“It sounds very simple, but whatever you offer there, never expect it to become private again,” said Matz, a social media researcher and professor at Columbia Business School. “Pull something off the Internet, press the reset button – almost impossible.”
Arguably, the risks of feeling in control of our data, and of trusting our ability to delete it, have never been higher. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, there is now the potential to use search logs, location data, text messages and more to penalize people who search online for information about or access to abortion services.
Law enforcement and other groups “that have the resources and access to the right kind of tools and expertise” are likely to recover deleted data, in certain circumstances, said Ravi Sen, a cybersecurity researcher and professor at Texas A&M University.
Sen said that many people don’t know all the places where their data ends. Any post, whether it’s an email, social media comment, or direct message, is usually saved on the user’s device, the recipient’s device, and servers owned by a company that uses its platform. He said, “Ideally, if the user who created the content ‘delete it,’ the content should disappear from all three sites.” But overall, he said, “it doesn’t happen easily.”
Sen said you can reach out to companies and ask them to delete your data from their servers, although many assume they never take that step. He added that the chances of recovering a deleted message from the user’s device decrease over time.
But even with all the precautions an individual can take, once you put something online, Matz says, “I basically lost control.”
“Because even if Twitter deletes the post now, or you delete it from Facebook, someone else may have already copied the photo you put there,” she said.
Matz said she recommends that people be more aware of what they share on the Big Tech platforms. As pessimistic as it sounds, you think it’s best to be overly cautious on the Internet.
“Just assume that everything you put in there can be used by anyone, and it will live forever,” she said.