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Privacy Perspectives | Is it now too late to be forgotten? Related reading: Notes from the IAPP, Feb. 26, 2021


Throughout the ages, traditional archivists and classical archaeologists uncovered and provided evidence of human activity enshrined in archival records and material culture. From hieroglyphs to cuneiform scripts, scrolls to diaries, the stories of individual people have been recorded offering insight into their day-to-day lives and creating a patchwork of human history over time. Individuals were always conscious of how they wanted to be remembered as evidenced by the ancient monuments constructed by order of Egyptian pharaohs. People actively created and selected the representations of themselves they wished to leave behind as a memory/record for future generations to discover or to carry with them as they transcend into the “afterlife.” In order to control how they wish to be remembered, individuals deliberately selected the aspects of their existence left behind to protect their legacy. Some parts of their story were “sanitized,” and other parts were further erased by deterioration.

Consequently, the ways in which an individual wanted to be remembered throughout the ages could be controlled after the point of creation and capture.

For example, a letter, journal or diary could be easily destroyed. If an individual wanted to be forgotten, they could choose to erase items after they were created that would reflect personal details on their lives, making it difficult to reconstruct their life-story at a future date. The story of an individual captured in stone, papyrus, textile, or paper was also confined to a geographic location and may not have wider reach unless becoming part of a museum collection or archive.

However, in today’s world, these statements no longer hold completely true as the creation, capture, and dissemination of personal data has been revolutionized in a digital environment. This is a result of the pervasiveness of modern technologies, including the use of micro devices and interactive applications resulting in the fluidity of information on the Internet as well as changing social behavior of humans as seen with the proliferation of social media in modern societies.

Privacy is a multi-faceted concept that is ever-changing over time and space. The protection of personal information takes on a deeper meaning when put in an archival context.

Societal or collective memory results from bringing together the memories and records of individual people and the entities that they construct. The digital world has had a profound impact on societal memory for a number of reasons. First, individuals are passively chronicling their life-story by recording their daily activities on social media and life-logging applications using portable, smart devices. The ability to actively and selectively create one’s ‘footprint’ or memory/record is becoming increasingly difficult. There are instances where the subject is not the creator of the captured memory or record. Additionally, for many, personal data is being created and captured without thought as to what happens post-capture where it becomes difficult to control.

Second, personal data can be transmitted and disseminated instantaneously via the Internet and in instances where privacy controls are not applied, the data can have global reach.  

Third, personal data can be removed from one platform, and through data portability, can be re-purposed and/or re-presented in another form, losing its original meaning and context. The danger here is that the data can then be misinterpreted or misrepresented.

Finally, personal data is being duplicated in several locations, remotely without the knowledge or consent of the creator and/or subject and becomes technically impossible to erase completely.

This phenomenon could have both a positive and negative impact on modern history. New age archivists and digital archaeologists already have unprecedented amounts of data to “unearth” about individuals to provide evidence of today’s society to future generations of researchers. Therefore, the challenge is for individuals today to control how they want to be remembered or forgotten. The digital world may be unforgiving to those who want to be forgotten or be selective about how they wish to be remembered. Arguably, given the pervasiveness of technology, the fluidity and duplication of personal information today, it may be too late to be forgotten.

Data retention overrides data erasure in this environment.

The European Union, in its attempt to protect the personal data of individuals on the Internet, has enforced “the Right to be Forgotten and to Erasure.” This right, as seen with the ruling in 2014 by the Court of Justice of the European Union where Google Spain was required to remove the personal data of a Spanish citizen, is a main pillar of data protection reforms in the European General Data Protection Regulation. 

However, it is not yet conclusive how this right will affect the retention or erasure of personal data on a global scale given the disparate legal requirements for privacy in jurisdictions around the world. The creation and capture of personal data covering many aspects of daily life may be impossible to erase in a way that traditional memories/records could in the past.

Ultimately, privacy protection which seeks to safeguard the living today will shape the legacy of those no longer with us tomorrow.  

photo credit: Queen Nefertari Meritmut's Tomb via photopin (license)


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