Sharing information over a network means you give up control over that information — forever

Sharing Releases Control

Any time you interact online, that information is recorded in the network. And, as with in-person communication, once you’ve shared something, you can’t control what happens to it — or how people will interpret it. Other people can repost or forward content to any audience without your permission, websites can sell information to other businesses, and data can be legally subpoenaed. Websites and search engines automatically pick up and duplicate content, making it impossible to “unshare” — the Internet never forgets!

Our Advice

Think twice before sharing anything online; ask yourself if you’d be comfortable becoming famous for it.

How It Works:

Once information has been shared with others, it can be replicated, sold, manipulated, misrepresented, and made (very) public, all without your permission. This is especially true when you’re sharing information over a communications network, where it may be intercepted by others (see: Someone Could Listen), and, depending on what medium you’re using, may be permanently recorded.

So far, no effective legal or technical means have been developed to enforce the difference between public and private information if someone fails to respect it. (See: Privacy Requires Work.) People take great joy in reposting (retweeting, etc.) social-media content and forwarding email and text messages; at the extreme, it can go “viral”. Private data from cell phones, email accounts, computer hard drives, and other sources can be subpoenaed, and in some circumstances used in court. The configurations of websites’ privacy settings and their copyright terms are constantly changing. Even supposedly secure data storage can be compromised; your accounts could be hacked and, if nothing else, the employees of a site or service can get to your data from the back end. Data that seems to have been deleted — like Snapchat photos — may still be retrieved by someone with the right technical skills. The only way you could guarantee control over sensitive information is if you never shared it with anyone, using any means of communication, until you took it to your grave.

Information on the Internet is easily duplicated — intentionally by users, and automatically for archiving — and once it is distributed across multiple locations, it’s unlikely it will ever be forgotten. Websites are crawled, analyzed, and cached by search engines, and are made available in online archival repositories (such as the Internet Archive) as well as being saved in offline storage. It is common practice to automatically back up or mirror email, mailing lists, news repositories, and other server content. Currently, there is no workable protocol for the automatic deletion of data, even after a person’s death. Even with tremendous resources, it is impossible to trace all of the digital and physical copies of a piece of information, not to mention all of the humans who remember it, to guarantee absolute deletion — even if you had the authority to do so. (Even the government can’t do this!) Moreover, even if the original data were somehow all deleted, information derived from it through data mining and inference techniques (see: You’re Leaving Footprints) could still persist.

Finally, anything shared over the network is subject to misinterpretation. Clear communication is never guaranteed in any venue, and the chances of someone misinterpreting your meaning — or of you misinterpreting theirs — are increased in online communications. Messages do not have as rich a context, and are missing some of the cues we usually use to convey our communicative intent. The probability that you will be understood also depends on whether your target audience is coming from a similar background and viewpoint, and therefore whether they have a good notion of what you’re likely to be trying to get across — but even then, your assumptions about their point of view may not always be correct. Furthermore, what you post online may be seen by people who aren’t your target audience, if you either didn’t know or didn’t think about who else would have access to the content. This larger audience may not have the same context and viewpoint as your original target audience, so may interpret what you say according to their own expectations and may judge it by different standards.

What Could Happen? Real-World Stories:

Amanda Todd Case Highlights Issue of Online Bullying

Families Struggle to Delete Loved Ones’ Online Presence After Death

Blippy Users’ Credit Card Numbers Found on Google

The Duke PowerPoint Presentation That Will Never Be Forgotten

Lessons from the Sorority-Girl E-mail Rant

US Bars Friends Over Twitter Joke

What You Can Do About It:

Use Your Imagination:

  • Only trust people with information who you would trust to take action (or not take action) on that information, in your best interest. In general, treat casual acquaintances and random “friends” the same as you would anyone in the general public; i.e., assume they cannot be trusted to protect your personal information.
  • Think before you post! When you share information on the Internet, assume that it will be duplicated and that you will no longer have control over it or be able to erase it. In other words, avoid posting anything you wouldn’t want to have permanently “on the record”.
  • Imagine the reactions of your target audience when sharing information — what might they think when they see or hear it?
  • Consider whether the information you’re sharing will be seen or heard by people who aren’t your target audience.
    • Review who’s actually in your Friends or Contacts list on social-networking sites. Think about who besides your friends might see posts tagged as Public. Will they get it?
  • Consider how your interests might change over time when deciding whether to share information. Also consider how the world might change; ask yourself what could happen if your relationship with the person you’re communicating with changes, the terms of service for the app or website changes, or your email account gets broken into. What’s funny now could be very awkward later!

Customize the Technology:

  • Regularly check your privacy settings on your mobile apps, computer software, and online accounts. The default is often to share every type of information with the widest audience possible; you have to “opt out” if you don’t want to share.
  • Create custom lists among your “Friends” on social media sites (for family, close friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.).* Before you post, ask yourself, Which groups of people in my life do I especially want to see this? — then set the audience for the post to include only those groups.
  • * On some sites (including Facebook), posting to a custom list means that each person who sees the post can also see who else can see it.

Communicate About Preferences:

  • Check your privacy status with companies. Banks, insurance providers, hospitals, and other companies are often legally bound to let you opt out of at least some types of data sharing.

How to Better Control Your Privacy — Guides:

Guide to Facebook’s Privacy Options

Maneja tu privacidad en Facebook

Facebook 101: Setting Your Privacy


(how to close accounts and delete as much information as possible)

Where to Learn More — Related Resources and Educational Tools:

Sharing Releases Control

Our video investigates what can happen to information shared online, and how to reduce damage

Share With Care

A video for kids on making choices about online sharing

Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

Ratings of websites’ privacy policies

I Took a Photo of My Friend That I Want to Share… Now What?

A poster for middle-school and high-school classrooms

Comparte con cuidado

A video for kids on making choices about online sharing (Spanish)

Smart Social Networking and Communication Tips

A beginner’s guide from GCFLearnFree

What Do You Think? Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever posted something and then wished you hadn’t? What did you do about it?
  2. Once you have sent or posted information, where does it “go”?
  3. What happens if you take down your website, Twitter feed, or Facebook postings? Where does the information “go” then?
  4. How is taking down an online posting, etc., like deleting a file on your computer? How is it different?
  5. How could you find an old webpage from an inactive website? How could you find your old posts after you’ve taken them down?
  6. Where are the texts that you’ve sent? Does the phone company keep them?
  7. What can you do if someone shares in public something you sent to them privately?
  8. Why does it seem like there so many people on the Internet who “just don’t get it”?
  9. Who do you think about when you make a post? Who else might see it besides who you’re thinking about?
  10. When you say something or write something, how do people know what you’re trying to get across? How do we use tone of voice to communicate? How do we use context to understand communications?
  11. Why is it hard to communicate irony in another language? Why is it hard via email?
  12. How is passing information around on the Internet like the party game Telephone? How is it different?

What People Are Saying — News, Commentary, and Research:

Deleted Snapchat Photos Recovered “Within Days” by Forensics Company

A Data Broker Offers a Peek Behind the Curtain

Use, Not Collection, Should Be Focus of Data Rules, Report Says

Internet Saint or Online Demon?

Facebook, Email Providers Say They Require Warrants for Private Data Seizures

Facebook Feature to Promote Friends’ Posts Raises Privacy Issues

National Security Agency ❤ ❤ ❤ Internet Archive?

FAQ: What You Need to Know About the NSA’s Surveillance Programs

U.S. Is Tightening Web Privacy Rule to Shield Young

Warning as 88% of “Sexted” Online Photos of Youngsters Are Stolen and Reused

Read My E-mail? Get a Warrant

When Your Data Wanders to Places You’ve Never Been

Our New Resources for Teachers: "Sharing Releases Control"