How The Internet Forgets Nothing
Thursday, August 12, 2010
A piece of information or a photograph posted on the web can hurt your chances to get a job, or get a date. And that negative information can stay on the Internet for years. We'll talk about new ideas to introduce some privacy to the web.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Many people who had been happily updating and expanding their social networking presence on the web have been brought up short by the story of teaching student Stacy Snyder. The 25-year old posted a photo of herself on her MySpace page, wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup. The caption read ‘Drunken Pirate.’ Because of that photo, the dean of her Pennsylvania teaching school denied Snyder her teaching degree. The reason given: Snyder was promoting drinking in the virtual presence of underage students. And what's more, when she sued in federal court the judge found the dismissal was not a violation of Snyder's first amendment rights. Snyder's story is just the tip of the internet memory iceberg. Postings, either good or bad, done by yourself or others, have no expiration date. And the concepts of privacy and forgetting may be transformed by technology. I’d like to introduce my guests. Andrea Johnson is professor of law and director of the Telecommunications and Intellectual Property Law Center at the California Western School of Law. Andrea, good morning.
ANDREA JOHNSON (Director, Telecommunications and Intellectual Property Law Center, California Western School of Law): Good morning. How are you doing today?
CAVANAUGH: I’m doing great. Thank you for being here. And Murray Jennex is professor of Information Systems at SDSU. Professor Jennex is an expert in cyber crime and identity theft. Murray, welcome back.
MURRAY JENNEX (Professor of Information Systems, San Diego State University): Good morning, Maureen. Good to be back.
CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. How much personal information is too much to put on the internet? And do you think anything posted should be able to stay up on the web forever. Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. First of all, Andrea, I want to ask you, why didn’t the First Amendment protect Susan Snyder from being dismissed by her school over that photo?
JOHNSON: Well, because in most instances MySpace and the – and Twitter and all of the other social networks are designed with the purpose of sharing, and so when you sign up for it you are agreeing to allowing people, including your employer, your school, to have access to it. And once they have access to it, they can make determinations about what is appropriate and not appropriate. And in the case of the young lady, she was a public employee and so they did not feel that the First Amendment extended to her speech. So consider it a public diary and not a private diary.
CAVANAUGH: Now, obviously this – she sued in federal court but if this had happened in California, would she have had any more protection here in California under our state laws?
CAVANAUGH: Now, Andrea, I want to ask you, I just told the story of Stacy Snyder. Have you heard other stories like this? People…
JOHNSON: Oh, there is – it’s replete. It boggles my mind that young people will post information on the internet for the public consumption that they don’t want their parents to see. And I think that the problem is, is that people make an – have an expectation that there is privacy when, in fact, there is not. And when you apply for a job, you agree to allow the employer to do background checks and to look at your history and that includes all of the social networking sites. So, again, I think young people have to be educated that when they post something, if they don’t want – if they have a restriction on who they want to see it, they shouldn’t post it.
CAVANAUGH: I want to bring Professor Murray Jennex into our conversation. What stories have you heard from the students that you work with or teach about how their posted information on Facebook or Twitter has been used in ways that they didn’t expect?
JENNEX: Well, I mean, I’m the one that teaching them, or trying to teach them, not to do this.
JENNEX: And the interesting thing is I used to do an exercise in class where I would have my son go do research on my students and see what we could pull up off of Facebook and MySpace and those areas. And I had to quit because it was just a little too embarrassing. And so what people are posting is, to me, also incredible. And I think this is something that’s kind of translating into a culture. I had an article in the Union-Tribune last week on my opinion about why WikiLeaks occurred, and it’s this idea of kids having an open life and the idea of open information and the idea that nothing is really private anymore so they like to share. Yeah, they don’t want their parents to know but I think in many ways they don’t really care about that either. If it makes them a cybercelebrity for 15 minutes, they’re happy.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I’m speaking with Murray Jennex and Andrea Johnson. We’re talking about the concepts of privacy and forgetting on the internet and what might be done to just garner a little bit of privacy on the things that are – not just that you post but that are posted of you on other sites. We’re taking your calls about what you think should be done. 1-888-895-5727 is our number. You know, Murray, I was – in researching for this, I was really surprised that there – it’s somewhat common now apparently for people who go in for a job interview to – the employers to ask them to open their Facebook page during the interview.
JENNEX: Doesn’t surprise me. I actually, on the security side, I teach my students who are hiring to do exactly that because that is a place where people are more honest, I think, than they will be in an interview where they’re prepared to answer certain questions.
CAVANAUGH: What do you think, do people realize that their social networking sites are now part of their resume?
JENNEX: No. They look at it as part of their private life, that’s something they can control. They don’t – I don’t think they have a perception of what their professional life is like, especially when they’re young.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, what is – what are the worst enemies to privacy, if you want to look at that way, on the internet? Are they the social networking pages such as Facebook and MySpace? Or is it some other software, Murray?
JENNEX: I don’t think it’s software per se and actually I don’t even think it’s the internet. See, 10 years ago our argument was, is that we were afraid the internet wouldn’t keep anything, that things wouldn’t stay around. So now that everything is, it’s kind of interesting that we’re having this debate but I think it’s our own selves that are our own worst enemy. It’s not really the software. They’re not creating something that couldn’t, you know, that we don’t expect to use or to share, it’s just what we post.
JOHNSON: I would…
JOHNSON: …wholeheartedly agree. I think that any time you are placing information with a third party, which means it’s not on your computer, it’s not within your possession, then you have no privacy because under the Patriot Act, the government can get access to that information without you ever even knowing it for purposes of criminal investigation and the like, so once you go on the internet, once you use the e-mail, once you use social networking sites, then do not presume you have any expectation of privacy at all.
CAVANAUGH: Now, but, you know, it’s not just what, as you point out, Andrea, it’s not just what you post to the internet, it’s the photos and information that somebody else might put up like a tagged photo with your name on it and so forth. Do you have any rights, Andrea, from stopping that from happening?
JOHNSON: You can’t stop it from happening. You can ask that it be taken down. And under most privacy policies, the provider has the ability to take it down if you request that it be done. But in terms of stopping it before it is uploaded, no, the best thing you can do is that if you see someone taking a picture of you, you need to ask how you’re going to use it. And if, in fact, you are aware that it is being posted on the internet and you object to it, then you need to notify promptly the internet provider or the provider of the service that you’re using and ask them to take it down. It doesn’t mean it won’t appear somewhere else, and it doesn’t mean that it won’t be disseminated in other ways. So, you know, you really have to – you can’t start from the presumption that there is privacy. I think that’s just a – that’s a misnomer. There is no privacy on the internet, period.
CAVANAUGH: Period. Murray.
JENNEX: Yeah, I agree. And actually when you asked about technology, I took a couple of minutes to think and actually I think the key technology that started this problem was the cell phone camera.
JENNEX: And the fact that all of a sudden kids found they could take pictures just on the fly, ad hoc. Whenever they wanted, they could catch really neat scenes and pictures of themselves doing stuff that before they didn’t really have the ability to capture and then send to their friends right away. So I think that’s what started a lot of this trend. And I have to agree, there is no privacy.
CAVANAUGH: There is no privacy because even if you ask a site to take down a tagged photo of yourself, they don’t have to.
JENNEX: Well, they don’t have to but also you have to find them. And how many of us go out and do searches on ourselves on a daily or a weekly, every monthly basis. I mean, I do a – every few months I do a check just to see what pops up but I only look at the top couple of pages, I don’t go digging down to see if there’s anything that I really object to.
CAVANAUGH: And that’s you. You, who specialize in this. We have another guest on the line right now. Michael Fertik is joining us. He is CEO and founder of reputationdefender.com And, Michael, welcome to These Days.
MICHAEL FERTIK (CEO/Founder, reputationdefender.com): Thank you for having me on the show.
CAVANAUGH: Now tell us what your company does.
FERTIK: We protect reputation and privacy on the internet. We have been doing so since 2006. We’ve got customers in 100 countries and our products are intended for everyone from sort of mom and dad to professionals to even some small to medium-sized businesses.
CAVANAUGH: Precisely how do you protect someone’s reputation on the internet?
FERTIK: The first thing we do is actually address what you were just talking about, which is really give you a deep dive into what’s out there about you on the web. We have built a number of tools, including one we’re about to launch which will be free which give you a much better sense of what’s out there about you on the internet and not just people who share your name on the internet than you’d find on, say, Google or Google Alerts, in part because we query a lot of parts of the internet that are the so-called deep web, the internet that’s not indexed by the search engines. And then we give you a set of analytics instead of pictures, an idea, a cross section of what’s out there about you on the web and how you compare to other people. And then if you’d like, we can establish control over the top 10 or 20 or 30 Google results for you so that people, when they search for you, fine the most relevant and recent information about you and not some random comment that you made to a college newspaper 10 years ago or some attack that might have been made by an ex who doesn’t like you anymore that was posted to the internet.
CAVANAUGH: So what do you, fiddle around with the algorithms or something?
FERTIK: There’s some – That’s a great question. There’s some algorithmic IP to it. In fact, that’s been part of our R&D for about three and a half years now. We’ve got a group of Ph.D.s in robotics and sediment analysis and fuzzy math and fuzzy logic who work all the time on deciphering the code to make sure that we can be effective and remain effective as the search engines get smarter. And then if necessary—it depends on who the customer is—we can also publish content about you that looks a lot like your Linked In profile, so we take a look at, for example, your resume and then we would write professionally written bios or profiles that look a lot like your resume. They’re reasonably vanilla, they’re reasonably neutral, they have biographical and professional information about you, and then we publish them in such a way that they show up nice and high in Google and take control of your search results.
CAVANAUGH: Now where do you draw the line? Would you possibly say, you know, make up a recommendation from some person that doesn’t exist?
FERTIK: No, we don’t. We have been…
FERTIK: We have been asked to make fake reviews, we’ve been asked even to attack other people and we have very clear guidelines that we adhere to. We will not pretend to be our customer’s customer. We will not lie on behalf of our customers, and we will not attack anyone else. Also, we have a published code that all of our team members have to follow with respect to whom we will serve and whom we will not serve. So while we do believe that everybody has a right to tell their own side of the story, we will not serve people who have been convicted of violent crimes. We will not serve people who have been accused even of harming children. So there are categories of customer we just won’t serve. The truth is that most of these kinds of interesting ethical questions…
FERTIK: …don’t come up very often so having gone to Harvard Law School, I thought maybe this would come up more often, having talked to journalists and other interesting people about the sharistics of this new category in my…
FERTIK: …company that we’ve created, I thought it would come up more often. It does come up but it’s very rare and so we had to learn how to cope with the queries when they came up but they don’t come up that often.
CAVANAUGH: So what do people tell you about their problems in having their reputation – that they want their reputation to look better on the internet? What are the things that you hear most often?
FERTIK: That’s a great question. Most of our customers don’t have a problem per se. They just have a problem of a mission so they Google themselves or they’re applying for jobs and people Google them and there’s nothing really current, relevant or material about them on the internet that’s consistent with the life transaction they’re now going through, whether it’s dating or divorcing or marrying or applying for a job or graduate school. And they want that first impression on Google to be consistent with their message today to the public because 80% of employers are Googling you and most of them are determining – or most of them have admitted to denying jobs based on what they find on search engines. I think the number’s 26% of hiring managers are not looking just on Google, they’re also looking in virtual worlds, which is an extremely dorky place to look for information about candidates. So the search is very deep. The search is very thorough, and people need to prepare. Now, there are customers who do have problems and the problems tend to be problems of embarrassment so it’s something that you posted yourself or that you said to a newspaper or that someone said about you on the internet or posted about you on the internet that isn’t really generally malicious but sort of, again, in some kind of playful fun but now, taken out of context a few years later, in the black and white of the computer screen, in the text that people read when they find you on the internet, does not look the way it should look for your current project in life. And so that’s the kind of problem that people see. It ranges from the, wow, there’s a naked photo of me, that’s not so nice, that I did not publish there myself, that kind of thing, to the mom is actually being talked about by her child. Kids talk about their parents a lot more than you might think on the internet and…
CAVANAUGH: I’ve heard that, yes.
FERTIK: …it’s true. Mom is – mom didn’t get the promotion, dad did not get the raise. Mom and dad are fighting. I think they’re getting a divorce, that kind of thing, to more innocuous content that just seems obsolete, like you work at a company that you no longer work at but the internet thinks you still work there for the last five years even though you left five years ago.
CAVANAUGH: Michael Fertik, thank you for giving us this sort of a primer on your business. It sounds like you’re going to have a lot of interest in it.
FERTIK: That’s so kind of you.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. CEO and founder of reputationdefender.com, that’s Michael Fertik. And in the interest of full disclosure, reputationdefender.com is an underwriter for NPR. And we have to take a short break. I want to get the reaction of my two other guests, Murray Jennex and Andrea Johnson, to what we just heard about this new idea of trying to clean up your reputation online and get rid of some of that old bad information. And we also want to hear from you, 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about privacy, if there is such a thing, on the internet and how information is used year after year and never seems to go away, the postings and pictures that perhaps people don’t want to see anymore or don’t want to claim anymore. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. My guests are Murray Jennex, professor of Information Systems at SDSU, and Andrea Johnson, professor of Law and director of the Telecommunications and Intellectual Property Law Center at the California Western School of Law. As I said, the number is 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Holly, calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Holly. Welcome to These Days.
HOLLY (Caller, Clairemont): Thank you for taking my call. I’m an older person, coming out of the sixties period, and so my comment was regarding the employer that asks the employee to open up their Facebook.
HOLLY: And our generation, there were questions asked of women in job interviews that you can’t ask anymore because we organized ourselves and made sure that didn’t happen anymore. And there’s – for me, to hear the young people presume that what they put on the internet is private says to me that we do have a hole in the law so I would encourage all the young people to get organized like we did in the sixties and make sure that they do have that privacy on the internet. I think we have a hole here that needs to get plugged. We have the presumption of privacy that actually does have laws behind it for telephone…
HOLLY: …conversations on landlines. This is a new form of communication so obviously we have some problems we need to fix here. So I encourage young people who have that presumption, I think they should have the privacy and I think the solution is to put pressure on the legislature and Congress to provide it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you, Holly, for the call. Andrea, do you think we need new laws?
CAVANAUGH: Got you. Murray, we just heard from Michael Fertik and his company Reputation Defender. What do you think of that sort of shuffling of information to bring up some good stuff first so that perhaps the bad stuff is buried down?
JENNEX: Well, I don’t really think it solves the problem. And I actually got two things to say. One, the caller mentioned a presumption of privacy. And, actually, I don’t think that’s at all the case. I think it’s a lack of information about the consequence that people don’t understand. I think they don’t really presume they have privacy, I just don’t think they understand what it – what sharing…
CAVANAUGH: What not having privacy really means.
JENNEX: Right. And I think from the Reputation Defender standpoint, I advise my clients and people I talk to to get rid of old e-mail because you never know what’s going to be buried in e-mail, especially in a company where you don’t have that control. So I think getting rid of stuff is a much more viable way of protecting privacy than reshuffling. And I kind of agree with the technology that would put a age limit on personal information on the web, that causes it to expire and be deleted after a certain period of time, especially when it comes to photos and personal information. Now, of course, the problem is historical figures and public figures where there should be a record. So there’s still a lot to be worked out there but I think that’s going to be a much more viable approach than it will be to try to just reshuffle things.
JOHNSON: Excuse me, may I…
JOHNSON: …add just one caveat. Even when you delete an e-mail…
JOHNSON: …it is not gone. Forensics can pull it up. It simply takes bits and is reused. Similarly, when you delete and take down photos from your Facebook account, it’s not gone. It just isn’t available for people to see but it is still in the system. There are backups. And that’s why I’m saying, any time you have information that is stored on a third party server, as is the case with e-mail and Facebook and Twitter and MySpace, you, the consumer, has no access to how that information is used, what it’s – how long it is kept. And when it is deleted it is not deleted from the system, it is simply deleted from public view. It still can be seen, it can be resurrected if necessary. So, again, deleting e-mail may not do it. My suggestion is the things that you have concern or limitation about putting on the internet, don’t put it…
CAVANAUGH: Don’t do it.
JOHNSON: …on the internet. Mail it to the person as we traditionally have done.
JOHNSON: There’s a reason why telephone calls are private, because it’s a landline and people cannot access to it. The internet is decentralized by definition, by construction…
JOHNSON: …so it is fundamentally different than the traditional means that we have used in the past.
JENNEX: Well, actually the technology’s changing and I wouldn’t even trust phone calls. They’re not direct connections anymore. But part of what you say is true. In a company, though, if they have their own dedicated e-mail system where they control the backups, they can get rid of the whole situation, the whole e-mail, the backup, the storage on the server, and everything else. Now the problem is, what we’re seeing is that individuals tend to go with e-mail systems like gmail and third-party ones where they don’t have control.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.
JENNEX: So individuals can’t get rid of it. And small companies that opt to use gmail rather than their own purchased system will have that problem. So it’s kind of a split problem.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a phone call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 or if you’d like to comment online, dare I say it, KPBS.org/thesedays. Don is calling us from Hillcrest. Good morning, Don, and welcome to These Days.
DON (Caller, Hillcrest): Good morning. I just have a brief comment about the lady professor’s comment and replying to two callers ago.
DON: Yes. I completely disagree with the professor. There certainly is a role for laws here. When people sign up for these social networking sites, the privacy controls that they’re given give them certainly the expectation that they’re going to be able to control the flow of information about themselves. They don’t have the expectation that by signing up to these sites they’re giving access to the entire world. These are tool – the internet is a tool and they’re certainly is ways – there are ways of shaping the flow of the information. And people do not read the fine print, we know that from surveys that have been done. The reality is that this is very similar to other situations such as applying for a mortgage or etcetera where there are – there is a role for laws in controlling what the – the way that information is used.
CAVANAUGH: Don, let me get a reaction from Andrea. What do you think of Don’s comments, Andrea?
JOHNSON: Well, I didn’t say that there’s no role for the law. What I said is that the law is not going to address the concern that the caller raised. I think the law has been effective in requiring employers to post privacy policies but essentially the obligation by the provider is to give notice, notice of what and how it’s going to be done. Your expectations of privacy going into it may not be changed as a result of reading – not reading the fine print or participating but the reality is, is what is your recourse in law. And the contract that you enter into with the provider governs what your recourse is. And even if, in fact, you haven’t read it and you do want to object to something being placed on the internet, you can request that it be taken down. If you want to try to get damages, you have to establish damages…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
JOHNSON: …which can be very difficult.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Murray, I know – this whole topic is becoming very – it’s coming to the top of people’s minds now. People are becoming aware of this, and I have heard of certain things, I know that Google is now going to stop – I don’t know what its time limit is but it’s going to erase the information about its searches after a period of years. There’s another search engine that says it’s not going to be keeping any information about the people who search for different things. So is this whole idea of not storing this kind of information forever becoming something that people are aware of and do you expect to see more of that in the future?
JENNEX: Actually, I expect to see just the opposite.
JENNEX: There’s been a lot of pressure in Europe and other places to actually maintain records for over a year on all transactions on the internet. The other side of the coin are frauds and fake transactions that people perpetuate while they’re on the internet. So the mere fact that you’re worried about privacy, well, there’s a lot of people committing crime.
So you have to keep the records. And quite frankly, businesses running off this search information that we gather, from a marketing standpoint, it’s incredibly rich, from a profile building standpoint of customers, it’s incredibly rich and it really helps serve a lot of the customers where we’re changing into a world of mass customization. And it’s kind of funny, I think we’re also longing for the days where everybody knew everybody, back in the small town, the atmosphere. And actually that’s what Facebook is all about, is creating that atmosphere. So to even anticipate that they would have privacy is completely contrary to what they ever said they were going to do. So I think there’s a misconception on the part of the consumer in many cases about what the social networking is all about.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Sophie is calling us from Escondido. Good morning, Sophie, and welcome to These Days.
SOPHIE (Caller, Escondido): Good morning.
SOPHIE: Are you still there?
CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed.
SOPHIE: Okay. My question is about a site, Rate My Professor, and also a PIPL profile. Like Rate My Professor, your student might post negative comments about you. What can you do about that?
CAVANAUGH: Hmm, let me ask the professor, Murray Jennex. Do you look and see what your students are saying about you?
JENNEX: I used to and I still do very occasionally. It is a good question. I had a bad comment posted once a couple years ago and actually another one of my students found it and she was the one that requested it be removed. And actually that is what Rate My Professor allows professors to do, is to request that comments that aren’t directly related to teaching, that are a more personal nature, can be removed upon request. They’re not searching it for them. But it does allow the professor to fix that.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Andrea, I know being an attorney, you know, it’s basically don’t ever write anything down, never leave any kind of a trail. And because that’s, you know, everybody can pull that up and see it in the future if you run into some problems. But I’m also wondering people use the internet, I mean, all the time now, so in your opinion, in the minute or so we have left, do you see that there is a safe way for people to go about and take part in social networking and so forth?
JOHNSON: Only by putting on things that they don’t believe will, can, or will be in any way used against them. I don’t have a Facebook account, I don’t Twitter, I don’t – You know, I teach it but I don’t do it because I understand the risk associated. And I do believe also that the fact that someone posts something doesn’t mean it’s credible, doesn’t mean it’s accurate, and I think the reliance on the internet to get information about someone as opposed to going directly to the person is a very dangerous practice, and I think there’s a trend that let’s go on and find out about the person on the internet before we talk to them personally, and I think it still should be the reverse. You should talk to the person and then you can confirm it or verify it but I don’t think the internet is a source of getting – finding out information about people it should be.
CAVANAUGH: And Murray, what do you tell your students about using social networking?
JENNEX: Well, I’m just the opposite. I do have Facebook, I do Tweet. I do Linked In and all the other social networking services. My approach is I post what I want to be posted. I have my public persona. So I put that out there and I have to because I’m actually an editor and chief of a couple journals and have a lot of colleagues, so it’s important that I be out there and available. However, I don’t post what I’m doing on a daily basis or any of that stuff. So I think it’s more the education that comes into play. I don’t think you can get away from it but I think we can be smart about it.
CAVANAUGH: Be smart about it. Fabulous. Oh, if only we knew how. Andrea Johnson, thank you so much for your time.
JOHNSON: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on.
CAVANAUGH: And Murray Jennex, as always, thank you.
JENNEX: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: We were also speaking with Michael Fertik, he’s CEO of reputationdefender.com. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.