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May 21, 2009

Study: Photos stay online after you delete them

Posted: 09:20 AM ET

The buzz online this morning is about a Cambridge University project that found photos posted to some social networks, blog and photo-sharing sites stick around after they're deleted by users.

Researchers tested several photo-sharing sites to see if photos still existed on the Internet 30 days after they were supposedly deleted by users. Seven of the 16 sites, including Facebook, failed the test. From a researcher's blog post:

Facebook alone hosts over 40 billion photos, over 200 per user, and receives over 25 million new photos each day. Hosting such a huge number of photos is an interesting engineering challenge. The dominant paradigm which has emerged is to host the main website from one server which handles user log-in and navigation, and host the images on separate special-purpose photo servers, usually on an external content-delivery network.

Sound confusing? Basically that means Facebook and other sites store photos in one place and their main Web page in another place. That makes it difficult to know where your photos actually live. And it apparently means there can be some major lag time between when you delete a photo and when it actually goes away.

The BBC says the problem comes from "shaky" business models for social networks:

What the Cambridge experiment has shown is that networks like Facebook and MySpace have decided that they just can't afford to give users as much privacy as they might like. And that means that entrusting your photos to the cloud can mean relinquishing control of the way you appear online.

A Facebook spokesman reportedly denies the study's findings: “When a user deletes a photograph from Facebook it is removed from our servers immediately."

The BBC repeats a familiar mantra: don't put anything up that you wouldn't want the world to see:

you're bonkers to put anything online that you don't want a future employer, partner or aged relative to see – because, if the experiment is to be believed, that embarrasing shot of you in fancy dress at a stag night will remain online even after you've deleted it.

Check out the list of which sites passed and failed the test, and also follow the conversation on Twitter. It's happening under a search for "Are you sure those."

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Filed under: Facebook • Flickr • social-networking sites


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El Common Sense   May 21st, 2009 10:21 am ET

People don't think about what they post online and one of these days, it will come up and bite them in the butt. I'm amazed at just how much personal info is shared and then people are afraid of ID theft, terrorists and whatever else?


Jackie B.   May 21st, 2009 10:30 am ET

The Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-phone Communication has been espousing this information on its website (www.iroc2.org) for awhile now. The non-profit organization gives FREE seminars to schools and parent organizations across the country to educate individuals on these practices (and shadier more dangerous ones) and how users need to employ a different way of thinking (online responsibility) when using digital devices.


Nigel   May 21st, 2009 10:41 am ET

I was surprised to hear someone report seeing a posted photograph on Facebook a week or more after I had deleted it .

The photograph was posted and deleted within moments.


Gezellig   May 21st, 2009 11:09 am ET

As they say, deleteing information from the internet is like getting pee out of a pool.


doofuS   May 21st, 2009 11:10 am ET

This is disgraceful, President Obama should make it a top priority to pass legislation preventing this from happening. The security of our country and society depends on the safety and sanctity of Facebook and other, similar sites. Without this, virtual life, as we know it, cannot exist.


Jon   May 21st, 2009 11:33 am ET

Then there is the problem of OTHER people posting pictures of you online. There's little you can do about those aside from removing the tag on Facebook or telling the poster to cease and desist. Easy blackmail, anyone?


HilariousIdiots   May 21st, 2009 11:36 am ET

It is truly hilarious to see how people (mostly women) who flock to Facebook. I understand the My Space thing with teenagers – but for Christ's sake you're an adult. "Hey, thanks for the add!". "I'm going to send you a virtual balloon because you're not feeling well". How many 'friends' on a person's facebook page does the person actually know? Do we really care what you're listening to now?


Sian   May 21st, 2009 11:56 am ET

I have found pictures of many people I know on Hi5 only to discover that their profile is deleted when I try to access the profile. I deleted a profile from Myspace almost a year ago but my email information still lags on their servers somewhere and I can still find the profile.


Anna   May 21st, 2009 12:02 pm ET

Funny that common sense qualifies as news these days


Dee   May 21st, 2009 12:06 pm ET

I too have seen my own picture on facebook at least a month after I deleted it. Thankfully, it's a perfectly fine picture, but still makes you wonder how long they keep stuff.


Casper   May 21st, 2009 12:09 pm ET

I deleted this comment weeks ago.


BlogCzar   May 21st, 2009 12:11 pm ET

If you are worried about your privacy, don't put it up or just don't use social networking sites - the whole purpose of them is to share your private moments with others, duh!


Kathryn   May 21st, 2009 12:18 pm ET

This also occurs if you delete your entire account. If someoen does a web seach like google, your page will still be listed unless you'd previously changed your privacy settings to disable public searchs


blame google   May 21st, 2009 12:18 pm ET

The brilliant minds at cambridge university need to do some search engine research. The pics keep showing up on the net because search engines – ie google – don't actually search the web, they search a copy of the web that they've made on their own servers. That's how google can give you search results almost instantaneously, you're just searching their servers. Copying the internet is a pretty big task and it doesn't happen every day – that's why these pictures linger out there. Just as it takes a few days (or months) for a picture to show up in a search, it will take the same amount of time for it to stop showing up.


LISA   May 21st, 2009 12:20 pm ET

My photos are posted on flickr and I've had MANY stolen and used by people to make money.

There are too many friends / family to limit the viewing to just that...plus so many new friends have been met who also share the love of photography.

It's just a shame there are a lot of creeps out there who delight in looking for an easy buck to be made and steal, yes, outright steal someone elses photo to profit and never give the photographer credit for their photo.

It doesn't matter that these photographs are protected by the copyright law...they are stolen anyway. You can also state till you are blue in the face on your profile NOT to use your photos without permission. These requests are ignored.

There are no answers....but to not post photographs at all. That's the chance it appears you take.


Mike Wiggins   May 21st, 2009 12:28 pm ET

This situation is no different than:

1. Talking on your cell phone or wireless phone: your cellular/wireless signals, once they reach the atmosphere are considered public property. And there ARE people out there who monitor this stuff, illegally or not.

2. Your trash. If you throw out utility bills, bank statements, credit card statements, or even address tags on magazines and packages you've received without shredding them, you're gift wrapping a present to your local dumpster diver. Please, please, PLEASE buy a CROSS-CUT shredder and put ANYTHING with personal information on it that you don't need anymore into the shredder.

The point being (before I get too long winded) is to think before you act ...


Todd H   May 21st, 2009 12:29 pm ET

This is such a poorly written post. I assume the target is toddlers.


Lolita Vida   May 21st, 2009 12:35 pm ET

Only idiots post naked, drunk and pictures of their illegal activities. Haven't people heard of a secret identity before.


Kris   May 21st, 2009 12:35 pm ET

This article is bogus. Hosting images on a content delivery-network is standard practice for any e-commerce or social-networking site. Users wouldn't see the response they get from these types of sites without a service like this.

Just because it's on a different server, that doesn't mean it makes it difficult find the images in any respect. Usually those servers cache content but the content on them are updated on a daily basis. So, at most I could see the images sticking around for a day afterwards in no-mans land.

Google does do image caching though in search, which could keep your images up if posted online for a longer time.


reality check   May 21st, 2009 12:37 pm ET

If you believe that your sensitive info is protected online then, you deserve to be suprised. Didn't your mother tell you not to talk to strangers? Jeesh!


bailoutsos   May 21st, 2009 3:24 pm ET

Someone may even copy a photo and it will remain in the internet.


bailoutsos   May 21st, 2009 3:31 pm ET

Lisa - in regards to your stolen photos, watermark your photos prior to posting. There are software programs available if a Photo program will not do it.


ABC   May 22nd, 2009 9:21 am ET

I've noticed this on FaceBook. by googling the name of the person that has deleted his/her profile, you can find their display picture on facebook's chinese server.


Jay   May 22nd, 2009 2:53 pm ET

I am a very social person.. including online. But I have never had the slightest inclination to have a myspace or facebook page or to post pictures on the net. I share pictures with friends directly a lot. I have never even entertained thought of posting personal information or pictures though. Where does the urge for this destructive behavior come from? I refuse to think people are that naive.. that they really think it an ok thing to do. I swear it's masochism.


David   May 23rd, 2009 11:31 am ET

Everything you put on the internet, be it a photo on Facebook or a post on CNN.com, is completely beyond your control. Anyone believing they have privacy or security on the internet is a fool. Post at your peril.


cybrbear   May 24th, 2009 9:43 pm ET

I agree with the BBC guy 100%. Social networking sites can be a great tool to stay in touch with friends and family, but as with many tools, it has the potential to inflict a far greater degree of harm than good.

My particular moral calculator makes me use all of the funky new tools carefully. If nothing else, anonymity is a thing of the past except for a few flash techno-geeks. Big Brother is watching you on the web. So is his Little Brother. Sisters, Cousins, Big Aunts and Uncles... Really they are! I am not paranoid...


polokean   January 14th, 2010 10:47 pm ET

Thanks for including my article in the list, Ali! :D Like you say, hopefully it'll be useful to people thinking about purcashing Thesis; make sure you keep checking back for future posts! Also, the Blogussion post is awesome! Seriously, that site seems to get better and better every time I visit! ;)


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scitech.blogs.cnn.com   April 17th, 2011 8:32 pm ET

Study photos stay online after you delete them.. May I repost it? :)


Violet19   December 15th, 2011 11:39 am ET

The buzz online this farewell is around a University University propose that plant photos posted to whatsoever friendly networks.

Store Photos online


The era of digital revolution and privacy deconstruction   May 7th, 2012 3:33 pm ET

[...] their visibility from the profile, but if someone keeps the permalink to the image, they will be able to see it after you have seemingly deleted [...]


Kids are Tangled in Social Media Traces, Who is to Blame?   June 8th, 2012 11:03 pm ET

[...] users’ information online with or without the users’ consent and once something goes online, it stays online. Facebook has already described their secrecy and privacy settings on their website to aid the [...]


sell vps   August 13th, 2012 4:25 am ET

I have fun with, result in I found exactly what I was having a look for. You have ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye


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