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Saving Internet information from the Memory Hole

• Files That Last

Before releasing the name of Sergeant Robert Bales, who’s accused of a murderous rampage in Afghanistan, the US military tried to wipe information about him from the Internet. Since this is a tech blog, I won’t be talking here about why they did it or whether it was a good idea. The questions I’m addressing here are: (1) If you want to wipe some information from the Internet, can you do it? (2) If someone tries to wipe information which you suddenly realize you want, how much can you recover?

We’re talking here about the government’s deleting only information which it directly controls. Parts of Bales’ wife’s blog disappeared, but probably this happened with her cooperation. If a government can control all websites in the country, including search engines, and restrict access to those outside, it’s a very different game. Think of China and the Tienanmen Square events of 1989.

If the government hadn’t been so rushed for time, it might have done a much more effective job. Keeping Bales’ name out of the media for a week was probably pushing their limits. If they could have had another week, many search engine caches could have lapsed, making it harder but still far from impossible to find old pages.

Let’s suppose information on someone or something has been sent down the Internet Memory Hole, and you’re an investigative reporter who wants it back. How would you do it? If you do a search on Google, many of the hits will have “cached” links. This lets you look at Google’s latest cached version of the page, which may be the only available version or may have information that was recently taken out. That technique is good for information that’s not more than a few days old.

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