Record of bygone high jinks can linger on Web

Have you seen the study that reports massive reductions in student productivity because of Facebook? I haven’t yet, but sooner or later, such a study is sure to tell us what we already know. Midterm procrastination and a recent article about increasing use of the Facebook in even the most unlikely settings (“Facebook becomes tool for employers,” 2/21) have already begun to confirm this theory.

But Facebook will hardly be the bane of our collective existence once we graduate, right? The fact that a cute girl in Calhoun is looking for “Random Play” loses its allure when she is in San Francisco and you are in New York. That said, Facebook profiles will not lose their ability to embarrass 20 years down the road.

The culprit, of course, is Facebook Photo, the feature by which one can “tag” a friend’s likeness in a photo. This feature, which premiered Oct. 27, makes scoping out potential screw dates remarkably more efficient, and is bound to appear soon on other photo Web sites across the Internet. There is no more clicking through dozens of spurious photos just to find a few that actually include the person you are looking for. The names, and an easy way to search for them, have already been programmed.

As is the case with many newly developed technologies, discretion follows innovation. Even though the technology has been around only for a few months, there are already pictures in which people are completely naked or smoking marijuana. Taking pictures of friends doing stupidly funny things is nothing new — just ask Paris Hilton. Recording it online with the information specifically pointing to who is doing what, however, is.

The wise programmers at Facebook have already solved this problem, at least on the most basic level: One can “untag” his or herself from a picture with relative ease. Once anything is on the Internet, though, it stays on the Internet. Even once something is deleted, a digital copy oftentimes remains intact, and to find it, all one has to know is where and how to look.

Now fast-forward to 2026. You are giving a meaningless deposition in which you are asked if you have ever possessed or used a Class D substance. Former president Bill Clinton might have said that he smoked, but didn’t inhale. But you, forgetting about that wild naked party back in 2006, vehemently deny ever having smoked. Instead of having to examine thousands of pictures, the new Facebook feature allows someone to type in your name. A few quick clicks produce a picture with an odd cloud of smoke pouring from your mouth. Busted. The opposing lawyer or interviewer would present the photo, ask you if you know what perjury is, and then make a cursory remark about the rather apparent lack of pants.

It is no question that pictures, even from one’s college days, have a tremendous ability to persuade: German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer almost lost his job when pictures were unearthed of him attacking police during a riot. Written records, too, often have such an effect — just ask Jack Ryan, who lost the chance to be defeated by Barack Obama in Illinois’s 2004 Senate race because of embarrassing divorce records. In both of those cases, though, the embarrassing materials were tangible and less easily accessible — someone actually had to unearth them.

In today’s age, where Google reportedly records every query made using its search engine, these records are never destroyed. Most new technologies, like widespread Internet use, follow a pattern of acceptance: They are invented, they are used without discretion, they are abused and then they are regulated. Today, we are in the stages of indiscrete use and abuse. Governments and people with hacking skills have broad access to the information. Just a few weeks ago, the Justice Department sued Google for an extensive range of data about searches, including information about all searches in a one-week period. Eventually the government will have the same legal restrictions on “tapping” the Internet as there are now on wiretapping phones, and agents will be forced to disclose the who, what and why of their query before they are allowed to search. Until then, though, we as college students are in a legal limbo. We are the ones who do those fun — albeit sometimes illegal — things, all the while possessing the immaturity to photograph the actions, store the photos online and then indicate who is doing what.

To stop wide-scale future embarrassment or worse for our generation, we need to be cognizant of what we do online, while also pressing for more obstacles to free access of digital records. It is our generation that has the most to lose from digital snooping. We all have secrets, and we don’t want to be publicly embarrassed in 2026 by what happened in 2006.



Eric Purington is a freshman in Morse College.

Comments