by: danah boyd

Earlier this week, an acquaintance of mine found himself trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare, a nightmare that should make all of us stop and think. He wants to remain anonymous so let's call him Bob. Bob was an early adopter of all things Google. His account was linked to all sorts of Google services. Gmail was the most important thing to him - he'd been using it for four years and all of his email (a.k.a. "his life") was there. Bob also managed a large community in Orkut, used Google's calendaring service, and had accounts on many of of their different properties.

Earlier this week, Bob received a notice that there was a spam
problem in his Orkut community. The message was in English and it
looked legitimate and so he clicked on it. He didn't realize that he'd
fallen into a phisher's net until it was too late. His account was
hijacked for god-knows-what-purposes until his account was blocked and
deleted. He contacted Google's customer service and their response
basically boiled down to "that sucks, we can't restore anything, sign
up for a new account." Boom! No more email, no more calendar, no more
Orkut, no more gChat history, no more Blogger, no more anything
connected to his Google account.

::gasp:: My heart threatens to attack my throat at the mere idea of
losing four years worth of email. ::shudder:: Or what if this blog
disappeared? Like, OMG. {insert horror film music here}

Luckily, Bob is well-connected. His friends in high places forwarded
his story to powerful people inside Google. Today, his account was
restored. While such a restoration should provide a sigh of relief,
it's also a bit disconcerting. What if Bob hadn't been so well
connected? What other kinds of damage can phishers do to people who
have so many of their key tools linked together under a common account?

Most tech companies blame phishing victims. Basically, the general
sentiment is that if people weren't so stupid, there wouldn't be a
problem. Yet, there is great research on Why Phishing Works
that shows that even sophisticated users can be deceived. While
education is important, it is unrealistic to expect all users to keep
up with the developments of scammers' deceptive techniques. Consider the story of Clementine,
a 13-year-old citizen of Gaia Online who fell victim to a phishing
attack and had her account deleted without recourse. Once again,
Clementine's saving grace was that she had connections, but it took a
long time and she was written out of her primary social space in the

When companies host all of your data and have the ability to delete
you and it at-will, all sorts of nightmarish science fiction futures
are possible. This is the other side of the "identity theft" nightmare
where the companies thieve and destroy individuals' identities. What
are these companies' responsibilities? Who is overseeing them? What
kind of regulation is necessary?

There's also a flip-side to this story. Google was able to restore
his account because they kept everything on backup servers. In this
case, Bob didn't want to have all of his content deleted. But what if
he had deleted it himself and expected it to be deleted permanently?
Who should have the right to recall his data and under what
circumstances? I find it particularly haunting that there is no way to
delete your Facebook account. You can only "deactivate" it, but you can
reactivate it at any time and everything will come right back. What if
you don't want to go down on Facebook's permanent record?

These are the issues that worry all sorts of privacy and identity
types. They are the cornerstone of books like Daniel Solove's The Digital Person and Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation.
Yet, as with identity theft, few people stop to think about data loss
until it happens to them. But perhaps we should. How would you feel if
the company hosting your email suddenly decided to disappear you? Or if
Facebook/MySpace/Flickr/Xanga/etc. decided to delete your account right
now? (There are plenty of examples of this one too. For example, many
celebrities have found their accounts obliterated because company reps
think that they're fake. And then there was Friendster...) Imagine if
you had no path of recourse. Talk about disempowering!

In thinking about this, your first response should be to back up
your data. (And grumble loudly about all of the places where this isn't
possible.) But what's your second step? What kind of legislation is
necessary to address this? What kind of data recovery (or non-recovery)
policies should companies have?

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