Recently a member of Congress got into some pretty serious hot water over allegations he accepted numerous unethical, and perhaps illegal, favors including flights on airplanes.  The Associated Press, which broke the story, documented these flights in several different ways, but perhaps the most interesting was by examining the location data embedded in pictures that the lawmaker posted on his Instagram account.  This “metadata” (data about data) exposed the locations of the politician, who was an inveterate social media documenter of his travels, when the pictures were taken.  The story is sensational and almost amusing  – Corruption! A digital gotcha! – except, in as far as it serves as a microcosm of a broader issue about which many more people should perhaps be concerned, or at least aware: Our lives increasingly leave digital trails that tell those looking far more about us than we realize. 

There’s a term that has gained currency recently to describe the digital artifacts that result from not just our social media footprints, but also from our day to day lives: “digital exhaust.” Privacy advocates suggest they’ll help you manage your digital exhaust, while online marketers describe how they can help their clients “monetize” customers’ digital exhaust.  The problem is that digital exhaust, is, in many ways a very bad analogy.  These artifacts we leave behind are not like exhaust – which dissipates, is ephemeral, and only temporarily shows your trajectory – but more like fossils, much more permanent and fixed relics that chart our life for whatever digital “archaeologists” happens to discover them.  Like the footprints of ancient beasts captured in mud and solidified in rock, these digital remnants are not bread crumbs but permanent or semi-permanent snapshots of our lives captured in 1s and 0s, there to be discovered by whoever happens to find them - malicious or beneficent. 


As demonstrated by the host of celebrities who have tweeted inadvisable or distasteful things; pulling them down moments later in a fit of reason, only to find out that retweets, “screen captures, ” or other essentially zero-cost digital copies have permanently documented their mistakes – very little that happens in cyberspace is transient in the sense “exhaust” is.  Rather once we create digital artifacts, the low cost of keeping and copying them makes it highly unlikely they will dissipate and go away.  Dan Geer, the information security guru reminds us that we have passed an important point in the evolution of the digital world, and that now “…it is far cheaper to keep everything than it is to do careful selective deletion.” 

While this insight about the permanence of digital artifacts is interesting, thinking about Twitter and Instagram may seem innocuous, and examples where people elect to share such information.  However the explosion of digitization of public records – including information on peoples birthdates, places of residence, arrest records, real estate holdings, phone numbers, and other key data – mean that increasingly the dozens of “people search” websites online are indexing more and more of our digital artifacts without our “opting in” the way we do to social media sites.  Frankly, this information doesn’t come close to the amount collected by the large pay-for-access data brokers, as outlined in an important 2014 report by the Federal Trade Commission.

I’m no Luddite or techno-pessimist, and the age of “big data” is offering many amazing conveniences and benefits, so the answer is not to refuse, withdraw, or – to paraphrase William F. Buckley – to stand athwart history yelling “stop!”  The European Union’s proposed “right to be forgotten” may not be a preferable alternative (and, frankly, may also not be technically feasible, regardless).  However, we would benefit from an increased recognition of the new ethical and social problems these “fossils” are likely to cause.

Nussbaum is an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany.