How can we safely destroy our data? The simplest thing is to not produce any. Then there won’t be any to destroy.
Too late? You already have data? Ok, then follow these 4 steps.
- Never share or lose control of your data.
- Become a multibillionaire.
- Create a facility for launching things into the sun.
- Launch your data into the sun.
Note that the above assumes no one develops a means of temporal snooping whereby they can look at your data in a time before you launched it.
Sadly, it is too late for many of us, as we’ve shared data and in some cases let it slip completely out of our control. And becoming a billionaire can be such a lot of work, especially if your parents weren’t billionaires.
Never regard data on the internet as ephemeral. Anything you cast out there may wash up in nooks and crannies where they will remain lodged until entropy is allowed to take its course. Google has copies of messages I posted to news groups in 1996. Their demise could be hastened by the obliteration of Google from the face of the earth, via direct hits with nuclear weapons on all its facilities. But somehow that doesn’t seem likely, so we shouldn’t count on it.
The Wayback Machine has copies of my web site from 1997. And do you know what is going on with your ISP’s hard drives? What do they back up, how many back ups do they keep, and for how long?
For that matter, what about your own hard drive? I hope that by now most people know that simply deleting a file from your hard drive doesn’t mean the data is gone. Most file systems simply delete your filename from the hard drive partition’s table of contents, effectively rendering the space the data occupies unprotected and therefore available to be overwritten. “Shredder” applications can be used to really delete the data, typically by overwriting it and thus making it harder, though still not impossible, to recover. However, the more difficult it becomes to recover data, the less likely anyone is going to want to expend the resources necessary to recover it. (Here’s an interesting video about recovering the data of the long dead.)
If you want to be really certain, and cannot afford the launch-into-the-sun strategy, do this: “shred,” then open up the drive, take out the pretty silver disks, and melt them. Or at the very least run a strong magnet over them, and then take a sledge hammer to them. Or if you aren’t that concerned and want to create a quantitative love letter, overwrite the entire content of the drive with the simple text “I love you” over and over again until there’s no space left, then remove the drive, remove the pretty silver disks, and present them to your beloved (you may need to boot a live linux cd if the operating system you usually use is on the drive being overwritten. I like Knoppix). For a bit of quality rather than mere quantity, fill the drive 14 times, each time with a different line from Shakespeare’s sonnet #18, or #29, or one of the other romantic ones (not the “give it up, babe, you’re not getting any younger” ones).
As for any stuff that’s already loose on the internet, there’s not a lot you can do. For future reference: when participating in anything that might hurt job, marriage, political, or other prospects, seriously consider using a false name or nickname.
It is possible to put a positive spin on all this. In the far future, maybe analysis of that post I made to a forum criticizing someone’s spelling of “lose” will help historians of language identify the transitional period during which “lose” acquired another o. There’s no longer any need to write a great novel; the immortality of each of us is assured by all the data that escapes our computers.