Archiving your social life for posterity

A Danish newspaper – Metroxpress – reported on 17 October 2008 (article via Google translate) that the Danish State Library and the Danish Royal Library are archiving all sorts of information posted by users on the Danish social networking sites such as Arto.dk (a service used primarily by children and teenagers) and dating.dk (a site used primarily for netdating).

The article reported that all publicly available material from these sites is archived, but that private mails remained private and thus not archived. Archiving of all Danish webpages (how a “webpage” is defined as being “Danish” is not explained) takes place four times a year, but certain news sites and the content of dating and other social network sites are archived every day, it is reported.

As could be expected, immediately a discussion has emerged in the Danish media as to whether such archiving is permissible, or not. People against this type of archiving argue that it is an intrusion into people’s privacy, and that it is not acceptable that your children or grandchildren 70 years after your death should experience the exposure – either through direct access or through other’s access – of your personal information about dating preferences and such.

First of all I think that it is important that it is underlined that there are indeed obvious privacy considerations to take into account with respect to the security measures in place the archiving institutions in order to prevent unauthorised access to the archived information during the lifetime of those whose personal information is possessed and stored as part of the archiving.

Worries about security breaches and unauthorised access can by themselves be sufficient reasons to stop archiving such personal information. However, in the following I assume (possibly without sufficient grounds) that the security is adequate.

Second I also think that it is important to emphasise that it is only relevant to discuss whether archiving of information is a problem or not, if the information is covered by with what we normally by common sense and by legal definition consider as personal information. When we are talking about information relating to dating sites, I think that most people would agree that such information is personally sensitive and thus covered by the need for some sort of privacy even though that this information is made publicly available by the profiled persons.

It is probably a different situation with respect to much of the information published on other social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and alike. Again from a legal point of view much of this information will without doubt be considered as personal information covered by privacy protection.

It is however my opinion that the need for protection of such information from privacy law is not that important, when you consider that people voluntarily and without any inhibitions publish this information on publicly available websites. But this is, as I mentioned, a policy view from my side, not a legal view.

Back to the question: Is it a problem that the Danish state archives such information, which in many cases is personal information covered by data protection regulation and makes it available after 70 years for the general public and maybe also available before in certain special cases for research purposes?

I think that this question has to be answered as all other questions related to calls for protection of private individuals’ privacy. The need for privacy has to be carefully balanced against the need for openness in a democratic society. And In this case I think that the decision should come out clearly in favour of the need for openness!

I must say that I am very excited about the hugely increased possibilities for research within history and sociology, and probably also other scientific areas that are enabled in a world where a lot of information can be stored digitally and used by future generations.

Such digital archives create completely new data that historians or other researchers or scientists did not have access to before. Imagine how much interesting insight into our ancestors’ life we would have, if our historians had access to similar information about the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people, e g 100 years ago.

As for the privacy of those people whose personal information might be used for such research, I do not think that there is very much concern here. These people are long dead, and their feelings are thus not relevant anymore.

As for the privacy of their children or grandchildren I do not think that these are relevant interests to take into consideration. Privacy laws as we know them right now clearly only take into consideration the privacy of those whose personal information is in question.

So let us get more archiving for the public good, and let us focus our attention to securing that the archives are not accessed by the wrong people or used for the wrong purposes.

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