Who Owns Your Personal History?

One day in December 1955, former President Harry Truman, who had been living in Independence, Missouri since leaving the White House in 1953, arrived home and found his wife Bess at the fireplace, burning a pile of his letters to her.

“Think of history,” he said. “I have,” she replied. And she let the letters continue to burn.

Today, we no longer have the option of burning our letters. Our digital tracks are everywhere–in email messages, tweets, text messages, social networking postings, and the visit histories of Internet sites. They are in the hands of family members, friends, acquaintances, current and former coworkers, people we barely remember, and people we prefer to forget. Our movements are logged through mobile devices, and our images are stored in the surveillance archives of retail stores, office buildings, taxis, and transit systems.

Most of us do not remember what we read online or wrote on March 9, 2011, or what clothes we wore that day. We don’t remember the phone calls we made or how long we talked, or whether we went to the grocery store, and if so, what we purchased there. But all of that information is archived, and if a pressing enough need were to arise, our activities on that day could be reconstructed in nearly complete detail.

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