This is an interesting story of how law enforcement, completely legally, can obtain data that you thought you deleted. Well, you did delete it, but deleted does not really mean deleted.
Earlier this year the FBI was trying to solve a string of seven bank robberies in five states. One of the tools that they used was cell tower data. If you get the cell phone data around the times of all of the robberies (and the robbers had not turned off their phones) and look for one or more phones that were present at the time of all of the robberies, you have reasonable cause to believe that (or those) number(s) belong to people involved in the robbery.
In this case, one of the suspects that came up was one Fernando Enriquez.
The police used this phone number to search police databases. That search produced email addresses and social media account usernames.
The police got a judge to sign a search warrant for Google, Instagram and TikTok to provide a copy of the data that Enriquez stored on those accounts.
One of the pictures produced showed him standing in front of a Chevy SUV that looked like the getaway vehicle. Photos also showed his tattoos and those seemed to match surveillance video from the bank robberies. Note to self, if you plan to rob a bank, make sure that you do not have visible distinctive tattoos.
Having gotten this data, the FBI asked TikTok for more information, including any deleted data.
Each social media company has a different policy for what deleted means. Google says they keep user data two months after you think it was deleted – although that can extend up to six months if the data was stored on an encrypted backup. Facebook says, well, data is deleted, it depends. Some data is deleted after 30 days; other data after six months, other data at different times. They do say that if an account is deleted, all associated data is deleted after 90 days.
China owned TikTok is much less clear. The FBI asked for all data, even if it is removed, locked or deleted. Forbes asked TikTok about how it handles deleted data and the company referred them to their website. The website says they store data in the U.S. and Singapore. It doesn’t say what happens to deleted data. The policy says that they retain data for as long as needed. That could include forever, I supposed, because one of the permitted purposes is to improve the platform.
Bottom line here, if you store or post data online, assume it will be there forever, no matter what you do and appears to be especially true for TikTok. I can tell you from personal experience there is stuff about me, articles I wrote, and other stuff from thirty years ago.
If you ask a company want to know what happens to your business data, you need to ask and get the answer in writing.
But also remember this. The fact that they may be able to recover data that you deleted six months ago does not represent a commitment by any of these providers to actually recover your data if you lose it. What they will do if presented with a search warrant (which could be “we looked but did not find anything that matches”) and if you ask them politely are two completely different things.
YOUR DATA, YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.