Digitally Disappearing

If we are using our computer and we want something to disappear, we simply ‘click delete’, ‘drag it to the trash’, ‘rm -fr *’ and a host of other commands – it’s gone. However, when we work (and play) on the internet, sometimes there is no delete button, sometimes we can’t reset the machine. Just how hard is it to digitally disappear in today’s world of increasingly intertwined systems of data? It’s a question that is often asked, especially in the context of teaching the foolhardy a lesson in humility undeserved fame.

Joe: I googled myself the other day and I found a photo from years ago that somebody took on a night out. I was looking none too good! So embarrassing!

Jack: Well, that’s it now. You’ll never be able to get it off the internet.

No doubt a familiar exchange of words between many a friendship in recent times. Even those who are less complacent about their image occupying digital space and choose to tackle the service providers, find themselves frequently meeting a brick wall. There are many documented cases of Facebook refusing to remove images of people from another’s postings, irrespective of permission not being granted to publish the photo by the unsuspecting subject. Some of these cases are of great distress and some arise from communities that are just downright bizarre. Have you heard about the Facebook group dedicated to images of women eating on London’s underground railway? As somebody who “street shoots” photography on occasion, I know that people often get caught in the crossfire of lens and subject but I think that this case crosses the line with respect to what is art or artistic allowance.

As anyone who has googled themselves or a friend will know, if you’ve ever had a footprint on the internet, Google will find you. As a webmaster in charge of your own website, you can request for Google to remove outdated links (and meta data) from its index (its directory of everything on the web) but as a user of another site or social media platform, you have more or less been powerless to erase your past if it was ever in the public domain. Court orders, etc, exist for extreme cases but more typically, the layperson suffers in silence by way of the anonymity of the larger corporation ironically ensuring that the individual’s name remains very much in the public eye.

Ann: Sure it’s my account, as soon as I delete the thing, isn’t everything gone?

Jane: Did you post things publicly? You’d be surprised just where they are now.

In the early days of social media, before privacy concerns – the kind of privacy concerns that people have about posting their entire life online to a couple of hundred people of whom they actually know about 50 – people typically shared things in the public domain. Tweets were viewed by the world, comments on blogs too, Facebook posts passed on from stranger to stranger without restriction. Viral marketing was born! Conversely, many people felt as though they “could just die” with the embarrassment that ensued. Do you have a Twitter account? Do you tweet updates unprotected? You know that anyone can look at them, anytime they want, without even using Twitter, right? Some spam sites even archive public updates to add to their misleading content in an attempt to attract more traffic. Good luck getting a take down against them for something you shouldn’t have posted!

If you don’t want it on your tombstone, don’t put it on the internet.

Words I live by every day and words of advice I offer anyone who asks how secure is …? Once you post something to the great ether, consider it eternal, your contribution to the discoveries of web archaeologists who are yet to be born.

This piece was prompted by the recent news that Google may be forced to acknowledge take downs from private individuals (i.e. not celebrities) for links it returns in search results that are no longer in date or more likely, no longer desirable. This arises from a case taken in the European Court of Justice by a Spanish man seeking the removal of links, to content, relating to past financial troubles that are now resolved and which he felt were badly reflecting on his current position. This could well be progress for those seeking to erase their digital past but the removal of a link to the problem, still does not remove the problem. Google is only one way (granted, the universally accepted single path) of finding data across the web. There are many other ways of finding things that you might not want to be found.

The act of digitally disappearing in a world of data that is automatically consumed by aggregators, coined for the purpose of developing business models atop the raft of information published by and about us, is an almost impossible aspiration. In our pursuit of knowledge on tap and rapid results for all queries, we have succeeded in creating just that; an interconnected world of data on demand, where anybody can find anything they want. It works brilliantly, efficiently, and relentlessly. Until of course, you no longer want to find something…

Internet Explorer Panic, Again

For years now, there has been Internet Explorer panic amidst the IT world. The agony of the software world was how do we design for Internet Explorer, when it supports so much less than everyone else does?

Boss: We need this site to be fully compatible on Internet Explorer because that’s what the client has installed on their systems.

UX Developer: Groan! Can’t they just install Chrome or Firefox for free?

It’s a far cry from the days when sites proudly displayed footer-resident buttons with the insignia of Microsoft’s browser and the tagline of “best viewed in” at a specified resolution too, just for good measure. I’m convinced that those buttons were a direct influencer of the growth in responsive design and the need to not leave well enough, alone. Not that it was a bad thing of course.

Despite these types of considerations taking the fore of Internet Explorer centric discussions, every now and then, a more sinister blip on the radar caused somewhat of a stir. Always in the form of some security vulnerability and yet again in the last week, a new security risk at the heart of Internet Explorer has ruled it as somewhat of a no go area for the remaining users of the browser. Microsoft have yet to release a fix for this issue, suggesting that some measures may reduce but not completely fix the leak.

Combined with the sealing of the coffin for Windows XP last month, in terms of Microsoft’s discontinuance of support thereof, this is shaping up to be a scary period for users of older systems. They have effectively been bypassed by a technological time curve and told to get with it or be gotten.

This latest threat to long-time supporters (read, those unwilling to try something new) comes about in the form of an old favourite, “the way that Internet Explorer accesses an object in memory that has been deleted or has not been properly allocated“, leading to potential execution of malicious code. Yet again, another tax on our constant desire to save seconds in our everyday life. So much integration has taken place over the years that browsers (especially in the case of Internet Explorer) are no more than a subtle façade on the operating system below, allowing access to things that really should not be left in full view of a malevolent audience. We pay the price for impatience and “ease of use”, while one would be forgiven for thinking that less effort appears to be spent copper-fastening our security.

Joe: How am I going to protect myself from this? My old laptop runs XP and they haven’t released an official fix for it nor are they going to support XP anymore!

Geek: There’s a simple self-help guide; go to www.google.com/chrome and follow the instructions 😛

What impact will arise from this flaw is debatable but it is known that there are already attacks underway to exploit the issue. Users have been warned to take precaution and by the more facetious, albeit rightly so, have been directed to self-help measures resulting in download instructions for Chrome and Firefox. How much longer will Internet Explorer last with both the UI designers and those with designs on our private data, out to get it, in two very different ways?

Hello Softwary World!

Hello Softwary! My new venture into the world of blogging. Over the years, I’ve dabbled with many different blogs, from tech to sport to random personal thoughts, each of which has run its course.

This time, I’m planning to publish sporadic pieces, influenced by major events in the IT world and backed by my own experiences in software development. After all, we all know that software tends to move way beyond the stock photo above and ends up looking a bit more like the one below.

Hopefully, the topics and edits will be of interest to many of you and perhaps we will establish some valuable debate surrounding the stories. I look forward to whatever may lie ahead of us. Another new venture for me, this time, will be to avail of many free embeddable images from Getty rather than creating my own (with the exception of some specific logos, banners, etc). Ever since the announcement that Getty was going to open up a large proportion of its image collection for free (as long as the image is embedded and not otherwise copied), I’ve been eager to try it out and discover exactly how reliable and sustainable it might be.