Could Batman’s ‘Clean Slate’ Identity Deleter Work?
The Dark Knight Rises features a digital identity remover called the ‘Clean Slate’. Could such technology work in today’s world? TechWeekEurope finds out…
Superheroes seem to have access to the most advanced technologies, don’t they? Batman, or Bruce Wayne, owns some startlingly intelligent bits of kit, from the retinal projection system in his headgear to the Batpod motorcycle and The Bat, the aircraft seen in the latest hit from director Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises.
The film also features a piece of software called ‘Clean Slate’. It is one of just a few pieces of software in Nolan’s trilogy that have a name. What does it do? It erases identities, purportedly by trawling every database containing information on a specific person and deleting that data. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it, Clean Slate isn’t a major part of the narrative. We won’t spoil who wants it and why anyway…
But what’s intriguing about the software is how relevant it is to current debates around privacy and the Internet. The EU is pushing for the “right to be forgotten” to be enshrined in law across member states, allowing people to demand firms like Facebook and Google destroy their data.
Many Web denizens want more control over their data, whilst businesses want to keep their mitts on their customers’ information so they can make money from it, either from advertisers or by improving their services to attract more users. Indeed, Clean Slate even plays into the central theme of The Dark Knight Rises: the rich vs. poor dialectic.
But could Clean Slate exist? It would need to do an awful lot to accomplish its aims. It would have to crawl all web-facing services for information, get inside them and then delete the data. That would include face recognition technology, so images could be erased too.
The same would have to be done for backed up and replicated information, all databases not connected to the Internet, and every piece of kit on which the individual has been recorded, such as CCTV footage, or call records.
It’s clear that Clean Slate would have to break laws to eradicate a person’s digital existence. Most characters in Batman films, apart from the hopeless, hapless police officers, don’t care for the law, of course. But most security professionals believe Clean Slate could not work technically, because of the way data is disseminated across the world.
“There are way too many databases to do this effectively…I think,” says Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure. “There’s no way for us to stay out of dozens of databases, even if we want to.”
“Even if you had some universal tool to hack into the database behind every site, there are many databases which are themselves encrypted. And then there are those which are kept away from the website, with only snapshots of data being sent to the site for use,” adds Alan Woodward, from the Department of Computing at University of Surrey. “The most secure databases have an air gap anyway so you just couldn’t get at them.”
Perhaps we should not be so quick to trash the idea of Clean Slate. Who knows what mad creations will be cooked up in the future. The film may even inspire people to produce Clean Slate-esque software, as if the make-believe technology were a digital self-fulfilling prophecy. Take heed of J.G Ballard’s words in the introduction to his 1973 novel ‘Crash’: “Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied.
“In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed… It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already here.”
Certainly, the demand for such a tool exists. It would be much sought after amongst privacy advocates, especially as Google proved this week that people can’t trust organisations to delete data, like it was asked to do after its cars scooped up personal information during their Street View rounds. “I can see why people would want to be forgotten – even if they haven’t done anything wrong,” Hypponen notes.
But in today’s world, Clean Slate, it seems, makes for another plot hole in the Dark Knight Rises. Not that it should matter – the directorial quality of the film and its unerring grandiosity more than make up for factual errors.
But when Clean Slate fails, what steps could its disgruntled owner take, if they lived in the non-film world, to start over again? “If you want to effectively be forgotten, change your name and move to a new city, get new email addresses, social media accounts and phone numbers. Kill your cookies. This would make you forgotten for most systems. Of course, very few people would be ready to do that,” Hypponen adds.
But there would be no true clean slate in that scenario. So what to do? There are already some limited ways people can at least find where they have been mentioned on the Internet. If you want to see what data Google has on you, the ‘Me on the Web’ section of the Dashboard tool handily gathers plenty of information in one place. Facebook offers a way for you to download information it stores on you too.
The technology to find the data is there, but the ability to delete it is not. Therefore, some kind of general web search tool would have to be created, “to find out where you are listed or mentioned and then seek some way to have those instances deleted”, says Woodward. That could even involve sending automated emails asking for details to be destroyed.
“The one slight niggle with this is that the best search engines (say Google) don’t index everything (a lot of social media sites are not indexed) so it might not pick up the very mentions you’d rather have erased.”
Nevertheless, such a crawler would be effective at making some headway into rubbing out digital footprints. If one wanted to go further, they would have to commit to a sustained campaign, locating the hardware on which the non-Internet connected databases are held, before stripping them of information. “It might ultimately be possible to achieve what is required, but the effort will be quite enormous,” Woodward adds.
With great power…
Whilst it seems implausible that one piece of software could do such a job, if something akin to Clean Slate was produced, it would no doubt be used for both good and evil. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.
It’s clear what malicious uses such a tool would have. Anyone who relies on social media or any other online accounts would be distraught if they found they no longer had any presence on the Web. Imagine if it happened to a whole brand. The consequences could be catastrophic.
But there are greyer areas. Take shared data, like photos with more than one person, or posts on Twitter or Facebook involving large clusters of people. For non-malicious users unwilling to infringe on others’ information, they would have to find a way of blacking out references to them without deleting the data outright.
“The problem arises when your right to be forgotten clashes with my right to remember,” Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, tells TechWeekEurope. “If you stabbed me and left me a scar, do I become unable to tell the story once your ten years are up?
“We see this at a more mundane level on Facebook, where the ability to tag third parties in photos caused all sorts of ructions. People who didn’t want Facebook accounts had to get them so they could go online and untag photos identifying them at rowdy parties.”
Even if Clean Slate or something similar did exist, those wanting to use it would come up against numerous ethical dilemmas. And if the right to be forgotten is brought into law, officials in Brussels, lawyers and companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter – in fact, anyone holding personal data on the Internet – will have to deal with such complexities.
When killing all your own data means killing others’ information, is it justified? Even the Batman himself might struggle figuring that one out.
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