The Right To Be … Oh, Forget It

The harshest blow yet has been struck against the European Commission‘s wacky “right to be forgotten.” What’s worse, the blow came from another European Union agency, the European Network and Information Security Agency, or ENISA.  And, worst of all, ENISA trashed the right to be forgotten in the most innocent and most devastating way possible:  By trying to take the idea seriously.

ENISA’s report simply asks how government will implement an individual “right to be forgotten” when data are so often plural –- concerned with more than one person and freely exchanged with many more.  How, ENISA asks, would government force the forgetting of a couple’s photograph when one person wants the photo forgotten and the other doesn’t?  And how can data be tracked down and “forgotten” when we don’t even know who has seen or stored it?

Consider Alice viewing Bob’s personal information on a computer screen, while she is allowed to do so (i.e., before Bob has invoked his right to be forgotten). Alice can take a picture of the screen using a camera, take notes or memorize the information. It is technically impossible to prevent Alice from doing so, or even to recognize that she has obtained a copy of Bob’s personal data.

Faced with such obstacles, you might think the European Commission would acknowledge reality and give up on the unenforceable right to be forgotten.  But remember the recording industry. When told that enforcing its rights over easily copied digital files would require suing masses of music fans, the industry said, “You think we won’t?  Watch us.”

In the same spirit, perhaps European data protectors could hire aging Stalinist photo retouchers to edit photos person by person, and take tips from 1984 on how to monitor everything that appears on our computer screens, just in case it turns out that the war with Eastasia has to be forgotten, fast.