For social media users, there may come a time when they’d like to erase an embarrassing post, which sites like Facebook say is possible.
“If you post something and later decide you don’t want people to see it, you can delete it,” Facebook says in its Privacy Basics section of the site.
But once something’s “deleted,” what happens?
When a user deletes something, Facebook is able to ensure users will not see the deleted post, but that doesn’t mean Facebook destroys all traces of that post completely, or that Facebook cannot retrieve it.
“In modern, big cloud infrastructures, they basically never delete anything,” said Ken Birman, a computer science professor at Cornell who does research on cloud computing. “Instead, they just keep kind of extending it with new versions.”
Users could be motivated to delete a post so an employer wouldn’t see an embarrassing photo or post, especially since the percentage of employers viewing social media profiles of candidates is at an all-time high, according to a new CareerBuilder survey.
Although the site doesn’t sell user information, 70 percent of employers look through a candidate’s social media profiles, according to the CareerBuilder survey.
One such employer is Recruitment Management Consultants in East Lansing, Adrienne Moulton, Marketing & Communications Specialist at Recruitment Management Consultants, said.
Moulton said they don’t use an external vendor to look someone up online, but an employee will look for a candidate’s profiles. If the candidate’s profile is set to public, they can see what’s publically available, but they have no way of accessing posts on a private profile outside of requesting to friend or follow that profile, she said.
“I don’t know of anyone who would do that, though,” Moulton said.
She also said they have no way of accessing deleted posts or photos, and she doesn’t think many companies can access things that have been deleted.
Music Performance and Psychology senior Ryan Gerhardt said he isn’t sure if employers could potentially access deleted posts on his social media profiles. He first said it would make him uncomfortable if they could, then concluded that it didn’t really matter because he doesn’t have anything to hide.
Gerhardt also said in one of his classes at MSU, he read about people being fired from their jobs “for the dumbest things,” that were found on Facebook. He said employers looked at pictures of their employees doing things like holding a red solo cup, even if they’re older than 21.
“I don’t think that employers necessarily need to see that,” Gerhardt said. “I feel like a resume should be enough.”
Birman said the best way to understand what happens to a something you try deleting is through “the concept of storage being write once, read many,” or WORM for short.
The WORM concept means that the storage, or what you’ve uploaded onto Facebook, cannot be modified once it’s written onto the disk a single time.
Birman said, “in modern, big cloud infrastructures, they basically never delete anything,” Birman said. “Instead, they just keep kind of extending it with new versions.”
Facebook holds on to this information primarily because it’s the most cost-effective method of operating their systems, Birman said. He said there are many technical reasons that have nothing to do with invading privacy, but with efficiency and how to make these systems operate on a more cost-effective basis.
“It turns out that some ways of using computer hardware are cheaper than others,” Birman said. “And one of them is when you keep adding to the end of a file, or a mailbox, or a strip of photos, or something, it’s a lot more efficient for the computer to do that than to try to erase things in the middle.”
Instead of someone from Facebook going into the servers and erasing all records of a single post a user would like deleted, it’s much easier and more cost effective to make a note at the end of the code that the user would like a specific post deleted. Then, users will no longer see that post, even though it’s still on the server.
“So they don’t erase things in the middle, they make a note that the thing was erased. And they put the note at the end, because that’s an easy place to put it,” he said. “And then of course, when they show it to you, they have to check to see if what they’re showing is still there or if it’s been overwritten. But that’s usually how these work.”
Another reason for huge companies like Facebook to hold onto this information is because it’s easier to do that than it is to go through and destroy any trace of every post or photo every person on the platform would like deleted, Birman said.
He said to picture a photo strip, and imagine Facebook is capturing every photo posted in a five-second time frame – not just from one person.
There could be millions of photos in this short time, so going through and finding the photo someone wanted to delete then rewriting the code to carry out that request is far more time consuming than just adding a delete reference to the end of that strip.
“It’s not interesting from their point of view to delete the strip of photos because it has one photo you were embarrassed by and took it out,” Birman said.
Instead, they’ll just make sure it doesn’t show up on your profile page anymore.
Birman also said that after a year or two the company may need to replace the disks because they’re getting old, so then they will copy “the stuff that still active” onto new disks and throw away the old one, then your embarrassing post or photo may really get deleted.
But it also might not.
And even if it did, if Facebook decided it wanted to go back to look at the evolution of your profile page, they definitely would be able to get to all of the old posts – whether they were deleted later or not.
Gerhardt said he’s deleted one or two posts from Facebook, but doesn’t think it goes away permanently.
“It’s like deleting a file on your computer, it’s not actually deleted, it’s just transferred somewhere else,” Gerhardt said. “So that’s just what I’m assuming they do on Instagram or Facebook, they just move it somewhere else.”
Gerhardt said he finds it hard to believe anything he deletes from his profile is completely destroyed, and that it isn’t backed up elsewhere.
Birman said if someone went to work at a company like Facebook, they’d probably see that Facebook has every version of your profile stored, so they can track what you liked, what you stopped liking and other things that can help them place advertisements better.
Social media platforms like Facebook, which are free to users, are extremely reliant on making money off of advertisements.
According to Investopedia, Facebook reported an advertising revenue of $7.9 billion for the first quarter of 2017.
This is one of the reasons Facebook would be interested in maintaining information about its users, so the company can place ads as effectively as possible.
Facebook and other social platforms want to accumulate information about its users so their ad placement is as smart as possible, so they’ll successfully direct traffic to their advertisers.
“They wouldn’t be able to do such a good job of ad placement if they only knew your persona as of this moment,” Birman said. “Because people – they’re not even conscious of it – [Facebook] find[s] correlations between the books that you surf, the web pages you visit and the kinds of purchases you might be making, or the kinds of ads you might react to.”
It’s also important to note that deleting something and hiding something don’t yield the same result.
Facebook’s Privacy Basics page also says, “Hiding lets you keep your post but no one else will be able to see it when they view your Timeline. Note that it might still show up in search results and other places on Facebook.”
Birman said it’s difficult to control where what you post online ends up, especially now when a lot of people are posting everything online and doing more online.
He said he thinks it’s a sad thing, if you believe in a right to privacy.
“We’re replacing a right to privacy with a kind of social expectation of not being invasive,” Birman said. “Is that a bad thing? Apparently people are pretty okay with it. We get upset about it when it malfunctions on us, but it’s very rare that it does, honestly.”