Is it possible to permanently delete a social media profile?

Put it online and it will live forever (Image: Aldo Sperber/picturetank)

They thought they could get away with it. The 37 million people who put nude photos and intimate details of their sexual fantasies on the Ashley Madison website (which has the slogan “Life is short. Have an affair”) had a get-out clause.

Ashley Madison, like some other sites, offers a hard delete – a guarantee that for a certain amount of money, your data will be scrubbed from all of its internal records. To permanently destroy all traces of your affiliation with the adultery social network costs £15 in the UK.

However, a hacker collective called Impact Team has revealed that customers’ details aren’t entirely deleted. Compliance with auditing requirements means that the credit card details and name used to scrub the account remain in Ashley Madison’s database, rather defeating the point.

Serves them right, some might say. But this should be a reminder that there is a big gap between what web sites do with our data and what they tell us they will do. And that there is a lot of wiggle room in the technical details. That’s true even if you haven’t been having an affair on the internet.

Your digital remains

Take Facebook, for example. The site advises that “when you delete your account, people won’t be able to see it on Facebook“. However, just because you can remove your account from the public-facing servers doesn’t mean no data about you remains in Facebook’s coffers.

“Facebook’s data policy is ambiguous on what exactly it promises to delete after you delete your account,” says Brendan Van Alsenoy, a legal researcher at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium. “It mentions ‘information associated with your account’,” he says, but “it’s unclear whether this covers any information other than the information that is immediately visible to users themselves”. So while Facebook is legally bound to delete things like status updates, the same legal protections may not apply to internal business information of the sort that Ashley Madison kept.

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