4 ways to protect your online privacy

Did you know that your social media posts and search history don’t disappear—even after you delete them? Here’s what you need to know to guard your privacy and stay out of legal trouble.

On the Internet, “delete” doesn’t actually mean delete.

Just ask any of the Ashley Madison users who paid $19 to delete their account information. It turns out more than enough information remained to get those users into hot water at home.


Many people don’t realize the extent to which social media posts, Google search history and just about everything else you do online is preserved—and discoverable as evidence in the event of a criminal case or civil lawsuit.

Facebook even has data on what you start typing into a post but decide not to share.

Social media networks don’t even pretend that “delete” means delete. Facebook’s legal terms liken deleting to placing information in your computer’s recycle bin. The terms also state that, by using Facebook, you acknowledge “that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time.”

What’s reasonable? Only Facebook knows.

Twitter expressly reserves the right to “preserve or disclose your information if we believe that it is reasonably necessary to comply with a law, regulation, legal process, or governmental request; to protect the safety of any person; to address fraud, security or technical issues; or to protect Twitter’s rights or property.”

I especially like that last bit about protecting Twitter’s property.

So, the delete key is like the escape key—it doesn’t work the way you expect it to.

Deleting posts could cost you—legally

If you’re part of a legal case in which your social media posts might be relevant, you’re prohibited from deleting them. Removing posts or deleting social media profiles might be considered “spoliation of evidence” and could result in civil (or even criminal) liability.

In cases where parties to a lawsuit have deleted relevant social media content that isn’t recoverable through forensics, the court instructs the jury to conclude that the evidence would have been damaging to the party’s case.

In other words, the photos you deleted just because they were embarrassing (though unrelated to your case) could be the reason you lose. This has led some lawyers to deem spoliated evidence even “better than the real thing.”

How can you legally protect your privacy? Follow these guidelines:

1. Trust people.

Realize that most judges and jury members use social media, too. They can put into context the information you’ve shared. They know that even if you were happy at your job a year ago that doesn’t mean your boss didn’t start sexually harassing you six months ago.

Even if it’s too late to legally delete your social media posts, trust that people will understand (and that the court will redact anything that’s irrelevant or would unfairly prejudice your case).

2. Be proactive.

Carefully consider what you say on Facebook, Twitter, Google and other sites before you hit “post,” and don’t be afraid to delete if you immediately regret posting something.

Stay ahead of your search history, too. We all search for exes now and then, but it’s mortifying to view those searches in a log, even if no one else ever sees it.

Deleting your Facebook search history is a chore, but it’s doable. First, go to “Settings.”

Next, click “Privacy.” Then click “Use Activity Log.”

Once you’re in your activity log, click “More” under the category that starts with “Photos.” Then click “Search.” (Facebook doesn’t make it easy to find.)

You can now see everything you’ve searched for in Facebook.

Click “Clear Searches” to delete your Facebook search history.

Twitter also saves searches, but it’s relatively easy to delete them. Just click in the search box, and select “Clear All” in the upper right corner.

Google makes deleting your search history somewhat easier. You can even prevent future searches from being saved by adjusting your settings. (See below.)

3. Adjust your settings.

Google lets you decide what it does and doesn’t save, but you have to adjust your settings.

Facebook doesn’t allow users to opt out of saving searches, so you’ll have to manually delete your search history periodically.

Twitter lets you opt in or out of saving searches, but the site also collects location data unless you opt out. Make sure to turn off your location in your settings.

While you’re at it, turn off the location feature for Facebook Chat, too. You never know when that might prove embarrassing, but that’s a different article.

4. Don’t post anything personal.

The least realistic option is to not post anything personal online. Share only recipes and article links, and provide minimal comment.

That’s drastic, but it’s easier not to post than to remove posts later. Facebook, for instance, lets you delete only certain data if you delete your entire account.

Remember, don’t delete your profile or any posts because of a threatened lawsuit or dispute, or you might eviscerate your case. Continually maintain your social media presence, and be thoughtful about what you post.

Now I’ll just go and clear my search history of “how to delete Facebook searches” and “how to keep Twitter from saving my searches” so I don’t look like I’m laundering money for the mafia or something.

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also the instructional design manager of enterprise training at MarketingProfs and host of the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. A version of this article originally appeared on {grow}.


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