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Social Media – ‘Delete’ May Not Mean ‘Delete’

By Matt Troha on November 21, 2014 hst Print

You may not be able to find a doctor who will provide a medical diagnosis for “Tweeter’s regret,” but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a very real affliction suffered by millions of people around the world every day.

High school students are especially vulnerable to the condition, which usually starts with a pang in the stomach after sending out a post on Twitter (or Facebook or Instagram and the list goes on), and then immediately wishing they had not posted the message. Whether that regret is due to the content, spelling or the emotion of that moment that has since passed, the “delete” button is only a click away. Yet, there continue to be cases where “delete” does not necessarily mean “delete” when it comes to social media.

Note the examples above did not mention one prominent social media network – the photo-messaging application Snapchat, which currently has more than 400 million Snapchats being sent each day. Snapchat’s rise among young people (71 percent of its users are 25 years of age or younger) has been partly due to the niche that it provides privacy that other social media networks do not via its disappearing messages. When a Snapchat user sends a photo to another user, the user sets a clock in conjunction with that photo ranging from one to 10 seconds. When the picture arrives, the recipient can view it for that designated timeframe and then it vanishes into the ether for eternity – except when it doesn’t!

In October, it became a national news story when more than 90,000 Snapchat pictures and videos, previously believed to have been deleted 10 seconds or sooner after receipt, were posted on the Internet. A third-party application called SnapSave, which can be installed to save the disappearing Snapchats, was to blame for the massive leak, admitting that its technology had been hacked. Regardless, Snapchat had shown vulnerability previously as digital forensics service firm Decipher Forensics announced it had been able to recover Snapchat photos from phones in a matter of days last year. 

Decipher Forensics lead examiner Richard Hickman told The Guardian, “Most people think that once [phone data] is deleted it’s gone – especially with Snapchat – and most people don’t even know there are companies like us that can get these things back because they think it’s gone.”

Twitter and Facebook have shown similar weaknesses when it comes to protecting users’ privacy. Websites like Undetweetable.com, which allowed users to type in a Twitter account name and see all of that account’s deleted tweets, have since been shut down by Twitter. However, other third-party groups continue to offer software that claim to provide the same service as Undetweetable.com if installed, reiterating that the technology exists to access these “deleted” tweets.

A 2010 Cambridge University study revealed that nearly all social media sites, including Facebook, continue to store content that users have since erased on their servers for significant periods of time, while content can also be cached by other independent Internet-arching websites like Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

Social media safety for high school students is a subject that hits home for Joseph Hantak, as the former high school English teacher in Rhode Island has written about the subject for Patch.com and other web blogs. He also understands that when it comes to social media, the majority of teens are living in the moment, not considering the long-term.

“The attraction of instantaneous publication often overwhelms teenagers’ still-developing sense of understanding consequences – especially when there are several friends or peers sharing their thoughts about a topic, or photos from an event,” Hantak said.

Hantak stresses that teens protecting themselves online must start by using the security settings offered by the social media sites they utilize. However, common sense is still the only thing that can prevent someone from needing to push that “delete” button.

“When I give advice to high school students, it’s pretty basic,” Hantak said. “Think before you post. Count to five before you hit ‘send’ or ‘submit.’ It’s too late, once it’s been posted, to try and take it back.”