Legal Law

What does your fingerprint say about you?

If recent news has been any indicator, we are becoming an increasingly digitized and virtualized culture, with one glaring and fatal flaw: our inability to realize just how vulnerable our real lives are to the impact of our digital footprint.

Take Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose life has been upended by the discovery of text messages he sent to a romantic partner (who just happened not to be his wife). Or consider Arlington Mayor Carmen Kontur-Gronquist, “…who was removed from office last month after she left images of herself in unrestricted lingerie on her MySpace page,” according to the New York Times writer. York Times, Susan Dominus. (When asked why she posted such personal photos of herself on such a popular public website, she replied, “It’s my space,” signaling a naïveté about the Internet that’s both quaintly and terrifyingly out of touch. for someone in a public office.)

If there is one modern slogan that we should all take seriously on this matter, it is this: the Internet is forever.

Unfortunately, that’s something many of us, especially those over the age of 20, don’t quite internalize. That’s what happened to Mayor Kilpatrick, who apparently thought deleting his messages from his PDA was enough to erase them from digital reality altogether. Ditto for New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who simply didn’t understand the ease with which his shady financial deals (all of which are mediated via Internet connections between the point of purchase, his accounting houses, financial institutions, etc.) financial and any number of others). places these days) could be tracked, crossed and exposed.

The current generation is the most at risk. It is not unusual for teens and young adults to post photos to their MySpace pages, YouTube videos, or blog posts that show them passed out, using illegal drugs, engaging in questionable actions, etc. Many don’t realize the impact these public displays of poor judgment will have on future employers, college admissions boards, and even potential partners. And simply deleting or deleting the images and posts does not provide protection. Sites like the Internet Archive ( (also known as the Wayback Machine) and search engines continually cache copies of older pages, preserving those embarrassing or incriminating images for posterity.

In a world of nearly ubiquitous Internet access, nearly permanent digital content, and nearly complete archives of cyberspace history, the concept of digital hygiene is becoming increasingly important.

Here are some things to remember:

1. As I mentioned, the Internet is forever. If you upload it, post it, share it, or post it, it will most likely be there until the last server goes down. Deleting copies on your side gets you nowhere. A corollary of this rule is that if you can hurt or embarrass him, count on someone finding you at the worst possible time. Rule of thumb: never post anything you don’t want your grandma, boss, or worst enemy to see.

2. Anyone can find anything. Given enough time, access, and interest, a motivated searcher can find anything that is or has been publicly or legally available (and hackers can find everything else). Assume that anything including email, text messages, purchases, financial transactions, personal data, pictures, etc. is public, searchable and findable no matter how well you think you’ve covered your fingerprints or how anonymous you think you are.

3. Practice regular self-seeking. Google yourself and see what comes up. Go to the Internet Archive and see for yourself how much of your former cyber life is still available for public search. Take note so that you are aware of what is available about you and how you plan to address it if it arises.

As a last resort, it can sometimes remove harmful content from some search engines or databases. But don’t count on this to save your bacon if it’s been bad. It will never remove all copies from all sources. Your best course of action is to simply behave yourself and stop assuming that because you are one of the millions of Internet users that you will somehow get lost in the crowd. The Internet can be a busy place, but it is also a very public and open place. And if you’re walking around naked with a beer bong strapped to your head, someone will notice.

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