Can You Really Delete Your Internet History?

The problem with deleting information is that nothing is ever really gone from the internet. Vasily Pindyurin/Getty Images

It's a perennial joke: "If I die, delete my browser history." Everyone gets it because no matter how unquestionable your internet activity might be, we all have weird Google searches people might not understand when taken out of context. And we've all visited someone's Facebook page one too many times. But even though the internet has advanced in leaps and bounds, our understanding of our right to privacy on the internet has been slower to catch up.

That's why the guys at Stuff They Don't Want You To Know teamed up with Will Pearson and Mango Hattikudur at Part-Time Genius for a special two-part episode on internet privacy. First, Matt Frederick, Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown tackle the tough question: Can you really delete your internet history? The answer might surprise you.

Since the late 1990s, the internet has become an integral part of life all over the world. Almost 4 billion people have an internet presence. That's more than 50 percent of the global population, up from just 7 percent in 2000. Access to the internet is becoming less of a luxury, and more of a human right, since so much of life is centered around being able to get online.

Because of the amount of internet usage worldwide, collecting information on users has become a huge business. Search engines like Google and social media sites like Facebook have an enormous amount of data on their users' lives and daily routines that is extremely valuable for advertising and marketing. But it's also valuable to governments and, of course, hackers. Thanks to targeted marketing, more people are realizing just how much information they're allowing onto the internet. But deleting your social media account might not be the fail-safe answer you're hoping for.

The problem with deleting information is that nothing is ever really gone from the internet. Thanks to the terms and services that none of us read — but all of us agree to — it's very hard to retract info you've already shared. You, and other users of that site, might not be able to see the deleted info, but it's still stored somewhere. And in some cases, that content doesn't really belong to you anymore.

For example, you have to request Facebook delete your account permanently, and Google can keep your information in perpetuity and use it however the company sees fit. YouTube might take down a video, but it still exists on the servers. Android phones can listen to your conversations and record audio without asking your permission first. And in the United States, at least, this is legal: In March 2017, Congress voted to allow companies to collect and sell their users' browsing data. (Not so much in Europe.)

But it's not just companies that want to sell you stuff that want this info; the National Security Agency has also benefitted from this setup. Matt, Ben and Noel covered a lot about the NSA on this previous podcast, but what matters here is that the government wants information on who is using what websites and for what reason. Under the guise of "national security," it's tried everything from using backdoors to unlock iPhones to locate suspected terrorists to trying to discover who used certain websites that helped those who protested against the Trump inauguration. It'll come down to legal battles to determine who will prevail: the citizens or Homeland Security.

Beyond never using a computer again, what can you do to protect your information? Listen to the podcast here and see what Matt, Ben and Noel have to say. And be sure to listen to the second podcast of this special two-part collaboration between Stuff They Don't Want You To Know and Part-Time Genius. Ben, Matt, Will and Mango chat about what companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Twitter know about what you search, where you live and what shows you hate-watch with your friends. Pretty freaky stuff.