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Oh My Tech!: In digital world, forever is forever, unless it isn't

Published September 13, 2012 10:39 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I read with great sadness about the unfortunate hacking of Mr. Mat Honan's accounts. It also brought to mind a question. I have heard a couple of extreme things about online files. One is BACK UP! The other is that virtually nothing can be erased completely in the electronic world. Even if you erase your hard drive, things are still there somewhere that can be retrieved (perhaps only by a specialist). Of course, I suppose you could expose your disk to a strong magnetic field and/or take a sledgehammer to it; but for most of us, we just get a backup drive and hope that no one hacks our accounts. — Mark Bryner.

It's true there are things in the virtual world that never seem to get erased, and once they hit cyberspace they are there forever.

But I think Mark is really talking about two different things here.

First, he was referring to the horrible story of Mat Honan, a technology writer for Wired who temporarily lost digital pictures of his baby daughter and other important emails and documents when hackers broke into his laptop computer and erased everything on the hard drive. He thought he lost them for good until a computer forensics company was able to retrieve them.

I subsequently wrote a column about the importance of backing up all your digital files — such as digital pictures, videos, letters and emails ­­— to an external hard drive or disk to make sure you have copies.

Those are the kinds of digital bits of your life that are irretrievable (unless you're willing to pay A LOT of money for a service) should you ever lose them.

Then there is the other issue I believe Mark's referring to, and that is posting on social media or the Internet, such as a Facebook update or a questionable picture that can never really be erased.

For example, if you take a nude picture of yourself and email it to your boyfriend/girlfriend, consider that picture as good as posted on the Internet.

Even if you think it's in safe hands, there's always the possibility you will break up with that person, or their phone is hacked, or they accidentally send the picture to someone else. Just ask Scarlett Johansson, Kim Kardashian or another celebrity who's had pictures or video of themselves land on the Internet.

The same can be said for Twitter or Facebook postings. Should you post a diatribe about, say, how much you hate your boss, it could very well become a permanent part of the Internet landscape, even if you have second thoughts and erase it later. That's because once someone else reposts that message, it will live on forever in other people's computers.

That's why I always tell people to never post something on a social networks they wouldn't dare say in public.

It's also why I tell my daughters to never post anything on Facebook that could embarrass them (not that my warnings have ever stopped them, I'm sure). College recruiters and representatives in charge of hiring for companies now scour through Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts as much as they do résumés. That picture of you drinking shots and licking salt off the belly of your former girlfriend probably still lives in the digital world and can easily pose problems if you decide later to become the head of your local church.

So, whether we're talking about making sure to back up your most precious digital memories or just posting a seemingly harmless picture of yourself, the bottom line is to be vigilant while clicking.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to http://www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.