Is SnapChat-style digital decay on the rise – and should it be welcomed?

Right to be forgotten

There's an assumption that because data can be preserved forever, it ought to be, but the pendulum is quickly moving in the opposite direction. "While some compliance rules require data retention, other rules – for instance in data protection laws – require data that is no longer needed, no longer relevant, or no longer accurate to be deleted," says Mayer-Schonberger.

With the rise of SnapChat et al, we are now seeing the move to expiration of data increase in an unexpected manner with the rise – and enforcement – of the 'right to be forgotten'. Post-Snowden, the younger generation in particular want the internet on their terms.

It's a simple premise; you upload a photo and have to set an expiration date for when that file will self-delete, from a few seconds to a couple of years, perhaps even a decade. Ditto a blog post or a news story, while the settings in an email inbox could easily have an expiration date placed on each email. Hilary Clinton would definitely go for that.

SeeCrypt offers communications that expire

SeeCrypt offers communications that expire

However, technology does change over time, creating barriers that data cannot migrate across. "The technology we currently have has superceded our digital stores, in that, our information we have on floppy disks – which is essentially a series of 0s and 1s – is simply unreadable," says Niall McBain, CEO of in-flight entertainment company Spafax. To some extent, the same will go for social media; it's safe to assume that none of us will be using Facebook in a decade.

The case for 'digital rusting'

Who are we to argue with the evolution of the human brain's cognitive system? "It makes sense to have our digital tools mimic how we remember and forget as humans," says Mayer-Schonberger, stressing that there's nothing human about the 'all or nothing' of binary – and so, digital – language. Humans forget, and they do it gradually. "That kind of digital decay, or as I call it, 'digital rusting', is suitable, because it not only forgets over time, but the very fact of decay is a strong signal to humans that the memory is old, and potentially no longer accurate or relevant." Big data, after a time, becomes bad data.

Deliberate decay

Digital decay could potentially safeguard privacy, but it has to be deliberate. Everything indexed and cached by Google will exist until Google eradicates it, but that same data could have been indexed or copied from Google by another online portal, website or search engine.

"We need a framework, a standardised cookie or timer to enforce a digital decaying internet," says Curran. "A properly designed data decay framework could work at least in theory, but the internet has to be signed on, and it also has to ensure no rogue third party is breaking the rules and archiving for a later betrayal." That doesn't seem likely, but the spread of SnapChat-style apps isn't difficult to envisage.

Wearables are collecting even more non-essential data

Wearables are collecting even more non-essential data that won't go away

The digital rethink

Digital expiration would change how we think about our digital possessions. "As we are requested to set expiration dates we are reminded that most data is not relevant and valuable forever," says Mayer-Schonberger. Imagine uploading yet another selfie and being asked explicitly by Facebook if you want it to remain online for longer than a year, or even a week. Then again, imagine if an entire lifetime's worth of family photos and videos expired without you purposely protecting them.

The rules on privacy and on permanence are up for grabs in these still early days of the internet when it much more resembles a network designed solely for efficiency than anything created to mimic the human psyche. "We often need reminding that the internet is still a relatively fresh invention and, socially, we are still coming to terms with it," says Curran. "Long-established rules of dealing with data have not yet taken hold everywhere online and, in the absence of precedent, we have to wing it."