I recently wrote about my frustration at being unable to recover my password for an account on twitter, so reading in todays paper about a similar issue seems very relevant.
I could not recover my password but what if you wanted to remove your account altogether with your personal details?
It appears it is just as hard.
Nick Miller in TheSundayAge* writes, a humble start-up has exposed just how hard it is to erase your profile from major websites.
At the time of review, it was impossible to remove yourself from these web sites:
- Animal Crossing Community
- Barnes and Noble
- Call of Duty (Activision)
- Code Red
- Deadspin (Gawker Media)
- DHL (Paket.de)
- Gawker (Gawker Media)
- Gizmodo (Gawker Media)
- Hack This Site
- Hacker News
- HOL Virtual Hogwarts
- IO9 (Gawker Media)
- Jalopnik (Gawker Media)
- Jezebel (Gawker Media)
- Kinja (Gawker Media)
- Kotaku (Gawker Media)
- League of Legends
- Lifehacker (Gawker Media)
- No Info Available
- Playstation Network
- Speaker Deck
- Valleywag (Gawker Media)
- We the People
Please delete me, let me go
‘It makes me more aware of where I’m putting my data.’
Robb Lewis is coy about the details, but recently this 25-year-old university student got an email from the chief executive of ‘‘ a fairly large social media site’’ .
It wasn’t an angry email. It was actually ‘‘ really nice’’ . But this CEO was emailing in person, because he was quite keen that Lewis change some information on his website.
The internet is full of stories of unexpected power arising from deceptively simple ideas. This is one of them. To some eyes Lewis’ website, created mid-last year just for the hell of it, is a symptom of a broader online revolution, the counter-revolution . The users fight back.
Justdelete.me is the address. It’s a clean grid, bordering on ugly; its colour scheme is traffic-light simple . It’s a list, as are many of the more popular things on the net these days. One by one, major sites are rated in terms of how easy it is to erase your profile : to remove yourself from their databases.
All the big names (and a lot of the lesser ones) are judged, and many of them are found wanting. Amazon : hard. Call of Duty: impossible. Craigslist: hard. Groupon: hard. iTunes: hard. New York Times: hard. Pinterest: impossible. Playstation network: impossible. Skype: hard. Wikipedia: impossible.
Click on the name, and you get a brief explanation of how to erase your personal information from that site’s records. Unless, of course, you can’t .
I meet Lewis over a coffee in Portsmouth, a harbour town on the English Channel. He’s a web technology student at the local university . Jeans and T-shirt , trainers: exactly the kind of genial geek who over the past decade has graduated from doing very well at Mario Kart to running the world.
The origin story of justdelete.me is what you’d expect. A friend of Lewis’ , Ed Poole, was trying to delete his (TV and movie streaming ) Netflix account.
‘‘ Basically you can’t ,’’ Lewis explains. ‘‘ It just can’t be done. They just say no, you can deactivate it, but you can’t delete it.’’
This may not sound like it matters . But it means that a record of everything you have watched remains on their databases, linked to your name, potentially for eternity . And the credit card you used to pay for it. And their software, which profiles ‘‘ the sort of thing you might like to watch’ ’ from your previous choices. It’s like a subsection of your personality, which you briefly subcontracted, is now permanently beyond your control.
Around the same time there was a story going around that to delete a Skype account you needed to know the month you created the account, the original email address you used, and five of your contacts.
‘‘ I don’t know about you, but I signed up for Skype maybe seven, eight years ago,’’ Lewis says. ‘‘ I don’t know what email address I used. It could have been anything.
‘‘ So between those two things I thought, ‘If we put these on a page and just get the links together so people can easily delete it . .’ and Ed says, ‘Yeah, let’s do that’ and Ed designed it and I built it.’’
There were 16 sites on the original version, which went up last August. There are more than 300 now, partly thanks to their collaborative model whereby other users and programmers can contribute material.
Within two weeks they had a million visitors – ‘‘ which was just insane’’ . Things have settled down a bit, to 3000 to 4000 visitors a day, ‘‘ which is still good’’ .
At first it was just a neat idea, something to put online that people might find useful.
But lately Lewis has found it has caused him to think a bit more deeply about what’s going on. ‘‘ After seeing all those ‘impossible’ links, and people emailing with stories, saying, ‘Well I deleted it and I’m still getting these emails’ , it definitely makes me more aware of where I’m putting my data and what I’m doing on the internet,’’ he says.
‘‘ Especially [because] I’m going to finish uni in about a year and a half and I’m going to be applying for jobs, so presumably employers are googling and searching for this stuff to see what people are actually like.’’
For example, one of the sites that doesn’t allow deletions is Gawker media, which publishes several popular news and opinion sites. It’s very easy for users to make a comment on an article, if (as intended) it arouses interest, or anger, or delight. But think of the implications of it being impossible to ever dissociate yourself from that momentary reaction.
Of course there’s the opposite argument. Lewis appreciates that in some cases encouraging anonymity online can make the internet a more unsavoury place. Nevertheless he has created a ‘‘ fake identity generator’ ’ which generates a fake name, address, date of birth, username, password and even a biography for use on sites that demand it as a badge of entry.
Justdelete.me has made Lewis think about the obligations on web developers, not just the problems for users.
His site accuses some companies of using ‘‘ dark pattern’ ’ techniques to discourage people from deleting their accounts. That means their system is deliberately designed to hide or mislead users from going through with making themselves disappear, even if it is technically possible.
Many users just don’t care (‘‘ My girlfriend is a good example, she just signs up,’’ says Lewis). But developers have a moral obligation to care on their behalf, Lewis believes. Sometimes deleting a user’s data is not as easy as it sounds. ‘‘ But that’s a problem developers should overcome and should think about.’’
Raegan MacDonald agrees. She is European policy manager for Access, an international organisation that lobbies for the protection of internet users’ digital rights. Right now that means lobbying business and government to be a lot better at protecting users’ data, and a lot more willing to give it up.
The problem is, they don’t want to give it up, MacDonald explains. There is now a multibillion-dollar industry in the ‘‘ data exhaust’ ’ that users create when they go about their online business while signed into a digital profile . The companies that you have heard of sell user patterns and profiles to companies you have never heard of, which sell it on to advertisers.
For you and me, it means we get all these amazing digital services at little or no cost, because they’re being paid for, ultimately, by companies that want to target us with personalised advertisements.
But MacDonald argues that we are being harmed, unknowingly. That the proliferation of our online profiles , the cumulative effect of our information being mixed and matched and combined in ways beyond our control, can come back to bite us.
The first risk is identity theft, she says. ‘‘ When all this data gets collected you are hoping or assuming that the company will take appropriate care of it, will take all the security precautions necessary to make sure this information does not fall into the wrong hands. But … data breaches are very common, they keep happening over and over again.’’
Think of all the companies that you’ve had to give your credit card details to, for example.
And then there’s a subtler risk. When information about your social interactions, and your online purchases and behaviour, gets combined into a profile , your privacy is gone. MacDonald explains – let’s say you’re on Apple, buying a few songs, on Amazon browsing through some books about cancer therapy, searching Google for chemotherapy clinics. Combine that information together, and someone can profile you with extraordinary demographic and medical precision. A profile that an insurance company, say, would find very valuable.
‘‘ The amount of information that can be gleaned from seemingly innocuous things is beyond what you can imagine,’’ she says.
A group from Cambridge University recently found that merely from mapping Facebook ‘‘ likes’’ , your sexuality, IQ, political alignment , present and past drug use, even parents’ marital status, could be predicted with startling precision .
In the end justdelete.me, despite its laudable aim, is a stopgap, MacDonald says. In the long run companies need to do better at giving users control over their own online identity. And governments need to hold them to account, and users need to educate themselves about what can be done, and use their commercial power to prefer those services that do it right.
‘‘ Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that we can get privacy back,’’ MacDonald says. ‘‘ But it’s a long road ahead.’’
After seeing a few tweets about how difficult it can be to delete your Skype account and then hearing that Netflix flat-out won’t delete your details I decided to build JustDelete.me.
JustDelete.Me is a directory of urls to delete your account from web services.
Services are marked either easy, medium or hard depending on how difficult it is to delete that account. Those marked as hard have additional information on how to completely remove your account, such as Skype which requires you to contact customer services to do so.
* TheSundayAge – Nick Miller | Europe Correspondent
** We could not locate the article online for TheSundayAge but we did find it in the SydneyMorningHerald