5 Places to Look for Your Digital Footprint
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Recently, many iPhone and iPad users were incensed to learn that Siri — the personal digital assistant for iOS devices — has an eerily long memory. Unbeknownst to Apple customers, Siri sends all your queries directly to Apple's company’s servers, where it is kept for two years before being deleted.
And while the truth about Siri is making headlines, it's not really shocking. Data retention policies have been aggravating Internet and cellphone users for years now. These policies are determined by individual companies and aren’t regulated by state or federal laws.
Shrinking your digital footprint requires a lot of diligence, but if you'd like to get started then it helps to know which companies are hoarding your data and how long they intend to hold onto it.
It should come as no surprise that search engines are the biggest culprits when it comes to keeping track of users' data. Companies such as Google and Yahoo have a vested interest in keeping as much information about you on file as they can. But how long does your preferred search engine remember your queries?
Popular search engines all store your data in similar ways, but they do so for different amounts of time. All of them keep a log of your sessions on their servers. These logs include your search terms, IP address and other session data, such as date and time.
After a certain period of time, the companies "anonymize" these logs to varying degrees, with some fully deleting factors that could be used to identify specific users, like their IP addresses, and some keeping that information indefinitely. Here's the breakdown:
Google: stores user logs for 18 months; anonymizes IP addresses after nine months but does not fully delete IP addresses.
Yahoo: stores user logs for 18 months; anonymizes IP addresses within six months; does not specify whether it fully deletes all IP addresses.
Bing: stores user logs for 18 months; anonymizes IP addresses after six months, at which time IP addresses are fully deleted from the server.
So you can't ever really take back that embarrassing Google search, but you can erase all record of it from your own computer.
All of the most popular web browsers — Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari — allow you to delete either all of your web history or just the bits and pieces you'd rather no one else know about. But some of these browsers are better for stealth web surfing than others.
Chrome: automatically stores web history for at least four weeks; allows users to delete some or all history; offers "incognito" private browsing mode.
Safari: automatically stores web history for at least three months; allows users to delete some or all history; offers private browsing mode.
Internet Explorer: user chooses how long history is stored, including an option never to store history; allows users to delete some or all history; offers “inPrivate” browsing mode.
Firefox: user chooses how long history is stored, including option never to store history; allows users to delete some or all history; offers private browsing mode; option to automatically clear history upon exiting browser.
Internet service providers (ISPs)
Just because you deleted your web browser history, that doesn’t mean there's no record of where you've been on the Internet. In fact, your ISP is keeping track of everything you do on the Web. How it retains this information, however, varies from company to company.
Time Warner Cable: up to six months
Comcast: 180 days
Verizon: 18 months
AT&T: 72 hours
It's not just your Internet activity that's being tucked away somewhere. Major cell service providers also keep track of your data. Everything from the numbers you dial to the words you use in a text message can be recorded by your cellphone company.
Here’s a list of the retention periods of major cell service providers, as recorded by the Department of Justice in 2010:
Verizon: retains records of call details, text message details and cell towers used by phone for one year; retains record of text message content for three to five days.
T-Mobile: retains records of call details and text message details for two years on pre-paid phones and five years on post-paid phones; retains records on cell towers used by phone for one year or longer; does not retain text message content records.
AT&T: retains records of call details and text message details for five to seven years on post-paid phones; retains records on cell towers used by phone indefinitely as of July 2008; does not retain text message content records.
Sprint: retains records of call details, text message details and cell towers used by phone for 18 to 24 months, depending on the device used; does not retain text message content records.
Your mobile device
And of course, as Wired reported last week, even your beloved smartphone and tablet are keeping tabs on you.
Siri, Apple’s version of a virtual assistant built right into your mobile device, has recently been caught spilling user secrets. According to an Apple representative, all data recorded by Siri is sent to the company’s servers and is stored there for a period of two years.
Data from Siri users is assigned a random number, not an Apple ID or email address. And after six months, according to Apple, it "disassociates" this number from the data file in much the same way that search engine companies anonymize IP addresses after a given period of time.
And much like anonymized search engine data, Siri files are used for product testing and improvement purposes long after they become disassociated from their users. [See also: How to Erase Your Data From an Old Computer or Phone]