Who Owns Your Personal History?

In an era when nearly everything we do is recorded, we have less control over what we choose to remember, and perhaps more crucially, what to forget.

One day in December 1955, former President Harry Truman, who had been living in Independence, Missouri since leaving the White House in 1953, arrived home and found his wife Bess at the fireplace, burning a pile of his letters to her.  

"Think of history," he said. "I have," she replied. And she let the letters continue to burn.

Today, we no longer have the option of burning our letters. Our digital tracks are everywhere—in email messages, tweets, text messages, social networking postings, and the visit histories of Internet sites. They are in the hands of family members, friends, acquaintances, current and former coworkers, people we barely remember, and people we prefer to forget. Our movements are logged through mobile devices, and our images are stored in the surveillance archives of retail stores, office buildings, taxis, and transit systems. 

Most of us do not remember what we read online or wrote on March 9, 2011, or what clothes we wore that day. We don’t remember the phone calls we made or how long we talked, or whether we went to the grocery store, and if so, what we purchased there. But all of that information is archived, and if a pressing enough need were to arise, our activities on that day could be reconstructed in nearly complete detail.

Of course, the perils of an online world that remembers everything are well recognized. As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in a 2010 New York Times magazine article, "the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you." 

But there is another, more subtle aspect to the inexorable growth of digital archives that store not only the worst things we have done, but everything we have done. To the extent that the past helps define us, it does so not only in terms of our greatest public triumphs and failures, but also through the mundane actions and daily experiences that in the aggregate can be far more important. 

In earlier times, those actions and experiences comprised a personal history accessible only to a small circle of people, and of which we were the main custodians. We were largely free to choose what to remember, and perhaps more crucially, what to forget.

Today, however, our personal history lies scattered throughout cyberspace. And, as illustrated by Facebook’s late-January decision to require all users to switch to Timeline, which will make it much easier to view the entire history of posts made on the site, we often have less control over that information than we might like to believe. 

The prospect that companies to which we have entrusted our data can unilaterally choose to elevate the visibility of actions we took years in the past undermines an option to forget that has long been viewed by philosophers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and writers as critical to the human experience. Nietzsche, for example, described forgetting as a form of active repression undertaken to preserve "psychic order, repose, and etiquette." In the 1942 story "Funes, the Memorious," Jorge Luis Borges writes of a man who is cursed with the burden of remembering everything that happens to him. "To think," writes the narrator in Funes, "is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence."

Like Funes, we now live in a world teeming with details. While in earlier times we had to proactively select what to commit to writing—or, in preliterate societies, to commit to memory—today we record everything by default and choose later what to retrieve. In the blink of an eye, the select-then-store paradigm that had been in place since the dawn of human history has been inverted. In addition, under the new store-then-select approach, we aren’t the only ones doing the selecting.

It is a seismic shift that ripples through almost every facet of contemporary life. Privacy becomes more challenging. Many law enforcement investigations get easier. Insensitive comments that in an earlier era would have lingered in the air for only the briefest of moments can now ricochet through cyberspace, damaging reputations, friendships, and careers. And so on.

Of all the changes in the digital age, the automatic creation of exhaustive digital personal histories that lie only partially within our oversight may be among the most important in the long run. Almost all of today’s adults, including essentially the entire current class of practicing legislators, lawyers, judges, politicians, technologists, and regulators, came of age before being a teenager meant leaving a trail of text messages that will live forever. We understand the impulses that led Bess Truman to burn her letters, but we are immigrants in the new world in which the most mundane details of our past are no longer ours to control.

Author John Villasenor is a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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[Image: Flickr user Howard Ignatius]

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  • Peter S. Chamberlain

    Is it either technically, much less legally or politically,
    possible, at this late date, to give individuals control over their own data in
    so many unaccountable businesses', governments', and data aggregators'
    hands?   Could we even get back to where the EU is on personal
    privacy if we voted for it tomorrow?  Let's face it, no incumbent
    politician, and no holder of our personal data, will give it up, or even share
    it with us, without a credible imminent threat of death, which isn't generally
    practical nor always, though often, desirable.  How can we use data to catch
    child molesters without ensnaring double parkers, late tax filers, and anyone
    who disagrees with the incumbent administration now or in some even more
    Orwellian future?  

    I just checked Facebook for the first time in a long time and discovered
    misinformation about me ranging from my home of origin to obscene posts I never
    made and of which I do not approve and with which I do not agree.  I
    discovered I have FB "friends" I never heard of.  My efforts to
    update and correct my data have so far been unavailing.  I do know how to
    add your having given birth to a child with Martha Washington or Thomas
    Jefferson, or your boss' wife, to your credit file, and who can and will do
    that, among other such things, for you for a price. I've seen worse done,
    including false releases of mortgages and clearing of outstanding credit. 
    .  The bank of which I was later general counsel made a six-figure loan
    based upon a false credit report alleging that our borrower was married to and
    living with his mother, which gave rise to a very intense "You can't call
    me a . . . .!" exchange when I called and tried to update his personal
    information, and discovered he was a broke trust fund bum whose credit report
    had somehow been combined with that of his late father.  I've seen a pimp
    and thief get a credit card from the same bank that had an uncollected $5jj0K
    judgment against him.  It took the CIA from 1959, when we discovered this,
    until 1983 to correct an utterly asinine listing of me as a Communist
    sympathizer or spy based on my getting snared in a top secret "mail
    cover," and to quit lying to my U. S. Senator and me about this whole
    sordid affair.  They told me in 1983 that they had told Nelson Rockefeller
    all about this in 1976, but he never told me.  They insisted that
    answering another FOIA request about their participation in fraud by John
    Connally and a client of mine to raise money first for Humphrey and the
    Democrats and then for Nixon would reveal too much about their intelligence
    gathering modus operendi, too.  My law practice unexpectedly involved
    privileged and confidential relationships with an awful lot of child and adult
    survivors of incestuous childhood sexual abuse, some by elected and high
    appointed officials palmed off on us by both political parties, and that
    information was stolen while the police for all practical purposes acted as
    lookout and never opened a file on the burglary and arson.  Considering
    what we know about the sophisticated data operation by the Obama campaign (and
    the far clumsier one the GOP tried to copy from it) do you really think the
    political arm doesn't have what the government arm has and vice
    versa?   Considering that both get a lot of it from the big data
    miners and aggregators, of course they do.  Welcome to 1984!


  • gregory lent

    mystics don't need records, all this information is already in what they call the akashic records. no thought ever goes away. they are, after all, material substances, despite science being late to figure that out.

    technology is just the out-picturing of what a developed mind can already do. 

    this process continues.

  • atimoshenko

    Would be nice if this indelibility of history eventually destroyed most of the scope for hypocrisy. After all, we reproach others today mostly because we believe that we ourselves will never be caught doing anything reproachable.

    If everyone can see that everyone misbehaves at least from time to time, then the bar for what constitutes misbehaviour will be raised.