Storing Private Information Online

Storing Private Information Online

Not long ago, people kept their important private information in file cabinets, in the safety of their homes or their businesses.  They kept hard copies – actual paper documents, or photographs – in places where they could actually hold them in their own two hands.  When they needed or wanted to share them with someone – a friend or a business acquaintance – they met those people in person.  Thus, they were able to maintain for this information a degree of privacy.  They knew who owned the information, and who had access to it.  The internet, however, is changing that.  Although some people still keep hard copies of their private information, others are beginning to store much of their private information online, in what is known as ‘cloud computing’ or ‘hosting’.  This comes with both conveniences and hazards.

The most obvious example of an online forum where private information is hosted, and shared, is Facebook.  One of the great innovations of Facebook is that it allows people who are separated by distance to keep in touch.  Family members can share their news with each other.  Friends who have fallen out of touch can connect with each other again. But when we talk about ‘posting’ our news or photos, whether it be on Facebook or some other platform, we are talking about electronic data; and not only is electronic data susceptible to deletion – either accidental or intentional – but in some cases it can be subject to questions of ownership.

Who owns the information we post on social networking sites? This question might have an answer, but sometimes the answer is complex, or dependent on legal or contractual circumstances.  Sometimes the answer changes in order to reflect the most current legislation, or the ‘fine print’ contained in any given site’s contract.  What this means is that the individual citizen needs to be aware of what kind of information he or she is sharing, whether or not this information needs to be ‘backed up’ (either in hard copy, or on a separate PC or external hard drive), and how trustworthy or reliable is the hosting site in question.

Consider the recent history of the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular.  In the scheme of things, the internet is still in its beginnings.  Culturally, we are still figuring it out.  It has forced other technologies to change, and advances in other technologies consistently force it to change.  While this development is good (in that it stimulates innovation), it also means that a degree of instability is involved.  And when you have instability, you have the possibility that certain ventures might be unsustainable.

Many ‘startup’ ventures fail, or simply are unable to keep pace with competition.  MySpace and Friendster, for example, were social networking sites that once predated, or rivaled, Facebook in terms of popularity, but which have since declined in membership.  Friendster has even been redesigned in recent years form a social networking site to a gaming site.  Facebook itself has faced questions about its users’ privacy.  Such instability begs the question: to what degree should we be relying on these systems for the adequate storing and retrieval of personal information.

One answer might be that the individual simply take care in his or her online interactions.  Do a little research before signing up, or joining, a networking site, whether it is for social or business purposes.  Be aware of what information you are storing, and where; be conservative, at least to begin, with what information you decide to share with others.  Be hesitant to dispose of hard copies, or electronic backup, of important information.  In time, you will begin to develop a sense for which sites are trustworthy.

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