Abstract - The Information Society 18(1)

Data Retention and the Panoptic Society: The Social Benefits of Forgetfulness

Jean-François Blanchette and Deborah Johnson

Modern information systems not only capture a seemingly endless amount of transactional data, but also tend to retain it for indefinite periods of time. We argue that privacy policies must address not only collection and access to transactional information, but also its timely disposal. One unintended side-effect of data retention is the disappearance of social forgetfulness, which allows individuals a second chance, the opportunity for a fresh start in life. We examine three domains in which social policy has explicitly recognized the importance of such a principle: bankruptcy law, juvenile crime records, and credit reports. In each case, we frame the issue in terms the social benefits of forgetfulness, rather than in terms of individual privacy protection. We examine how different policy approaches to privacy might handle the retention of data and propose a comprehensive policy that includes a variety of strategies. The broad conclusion of the paper is that data retention and disposal should be addressed as a part of a broader and comprehensive policy approach rather than in a piecemeal fashion, or as an afterthought.

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