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Immortal, and ubiquitous, digital breadcrumbs


By: Scott Bradner


The New York Times discussed one effect of today's information producing technology in a September 15th article on "tell-all PCs and phones transforming divorce."  They painted a grim picture of what records are left lying around if someone decides to cheat on their spouse -- grim for the cheater anyway.  The article focused on cell phone records, saved email messages and hacked accounts, but there are lot more digital breadcrumbs we leave behind us, most of which are likely to far outlive us.


The job seems to be getting easier for divorce lawyers, at least for the divorce lawyers who are not working for people with something to hide since it s getting very hard to hide these days.  It is quite hard for a cheater to go anywhere or do anything these days with entries about what he or she is doing being added to databases somewhere.  New records are created every time a cheater makes a phone call, buys something with a credit card, sends an email message, surfs the web, drives through an automated tool booth on the highway, enables a GPS system in their car, or even walks down the street with a cell phone in his or her pocket or purse.


Most of these records are, for practical purposes, immortal.  At the very least, most of the records will be there long enough for them to be useful to a spouse or lawyer wanting to find out just what is going on. 


Of course, records are not just kept on people who cheat on their spouses.  As Bill Gates, among others, know too well, email is forever.  (See, Does Bill still use email?  Vast databases are being built up about the activities of all of us.  Cheap disk has meant that it is cheaper for data collectors to hang onto data rather than think about whether they might have a use for the data years from now.  Decades from now, an investigator may be able to find out that you bought whole rather than skim milk at the market last week.


Some companies are beginning to pay lip service to the idea that data about the actions of individuals does not need to be immortal but far too few are doing so.  (See Google: Looking good by doing less evil,


There are almost no rules in the US that control access to this building pile of information.  The US government has refused to take the kind of principled approach to the topic as has been done in Europe.  (See, Americans as second class citizens  One of the few US laws in the area perfectly illustrates the US approach.  It is illegal under US Federal Law to improperly disclose video tape rental or purchase records.  (  This law grew out of the disclosure of Robert Bork's video tape rentals during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.  But rather than require protection of all private records about individuals Congress chose to address this instance of the underlying problem rather than the problem itself.


So, pay cash and use pay phones if you plan to cheat.  But if you are one of the data collectors, why not think about what you actually need to know about your customers and how long you need to know it -- not to protect cheaters but to delay, a little bit, the rush to government, and universal "Total Information Awareness" (


disclaimer: As an organization in the education business, Harvard is required to collect certain information but it has not expressed an opinion on the collection of extraneous information, so the above observation is mine.