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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Erasing an Alum’s Digital Footprint

Bella Rios

Bella Rios was a 2018-2019 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Marcus graduated from his alma mater in 1985 and is currently searching for a new job after working for a company since he graduated college. He understands that the evolution of technology shifted hiring practices, as many employers now conduct online background checks during the interview process.

This includes Google searches and reviewing applicants’ social media presence. To best understand his own digital footprint, Marcus searches for his name on Google. The search results include a news article from his alma mater’s student newspaper written in 1981. The article identifies Marcus as the first year student who stole a campus safety car while under the influence of drugs.

He reaches out to the school paper about redacting his name from this article. Marcus explains the negative implications of the embarrassing incident, including his reputation in the eyes of prospective employers. He believes that this article will jeopardize his employment opportunities.

When this article was originally published, Marcus did not ask for a name redaction because he could not foresee the rapid advancement of technology that would enable others to find this article digitally. He expected it to remain in the physical collection of archives, never to be seen by employers and colleagues.  

The school editor, Analyssa, though sympathetic to Marcus’s request, considers the ramifications of redacting Marcus’ name. She evaluates whether this sets a problematic precedent that prioritizes the source’s reputation over the public interest in accessible information.

By removing his name, Analyssa wonders whether the public will interpret this action as too protective of the source and shielding him from accountability for his actions. Readers might question the transparency of the paper, and may wonder whether other articles were altered without informing the public.

On the other hand, Analyssa does not want Marcus’ reckless and immature decision in 1981 to prevent him from getting a job. Removing his name from the article would ensure that employers judge Marcus’ character on the basis of his work ethic and qualifications rather than a foolish stunt his first year of college.

Discussion Questions

1. Under what conditions, if any, should a source’s name be redacted from the news archive?
2. What are the potential consequences of redacting Marcus’ name?
3. How does the paper’s responsibility to serve the public interest influence this decision?
4. Should Analyssa redact Marcus’ name?

Jun 7, 2019