Skip to main content

Remembering me: big data, individual identity, and the psychological necessity of forgetting


Each of us has a personal narrative: a story that defines us, and one that we tell about ourselves to our inner and outer worlds. A strong sense of identity is rooted in a personal narrative that has coherence and correspondence (Conway in J Mem Lang 53:594–628, 2005): coherence in the sense that the story we tell is consistent with and supportive of our current version of ‘self’; and correspondence in the sense that the story reflects the contents of autobiographical memory and the meaning of our experiences. These goals are achieved by a reciprocal interaction of autobiographical memory and the self, in which memories consistent with the self-image are reinforced, in turn strengthening the self-image they reflect. Thus, personal narratives depend crucially on the malleable nature of autobiographical memory: a strong sense of self requires that one remember what matters, and forget what does not. Today, anyone who is active online generates a highly detailed, ever—expanding, and permanent digital biographical ‘memory’—memory that identifies where we go, what we say, who we see, and what we do in increasing detail as our physical lives become more and more enmeshed with electronic devices capable of recording our communications, online activities, movements, and even bodily functions. This paper explores the consequences of this digital record for identity, arguing that it presents a challenge to our ability to construct our own personal narratives–narratives that are central to a sense of ‘self’. In the end, the ‘right to be forgotten’ may be, above all else, a psychological necessity that is core to identity—and therefore a value that we must ensure is protected.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Addis, D. R., & Tippett, L. J. (2004). Memory of myself: Autobiographical memory and identity in Alzheimer’s disease. Memory, 12(1), 56–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Allen, A. L. (2008). Dredging up the past: Lifelogging, memory, and surveillance. The University of Chicago Law Review, 75(1), 47–74.

    Google Scholar 

  • Andrade, N. N. G. D. (2012). Oblivion: The right to be different from oneself-reproposing the right to be forgotten. In VII international conference on internet, law & politics. Net neutrality and other challenges for the future of the Internet”, IDP. Revista de Internet, Derecho y Política (No. 13, pp. 122–137).

  • Askoxylakis, I., Brown, I., Dickman, P., Friedewald, M., Irion, K., Kosta, E., et al. (2011). To log or not to log?-Risks and benefits of emerging life-logging applications. ENISA, available online at

  • Bannon, L. J. (2006). Forgetting as a feature, not a bug: The duality of memory and implications for ubiquitous computing. CoDesign, 2(01), 3–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bennett, S. C. (2012). Right to be forgotten: Reconciling EU and US perspectives, the. Berkeley Journal of International Law, 30, 161.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chen, Y., & Jones, G. J. (2010). Augmenting human memory using personal lifelogs. In Proceedings of the 1st augmented human international conference (p. 24). ACM.

  • Connerton, P. (2008). Seven types of forgetting. Memory Studies, 1(1), 59–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Conway, M. A. (2005). Memory and self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 594–628.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Dodge, M., & Kitchin, R. (2007). Outlines of a world coming into existence: Pervasive computing and the ethics of forgetting. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 34(3), 431–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fawns, T. (2013). Blended memory: The changing balance of technologically-mediated semantic and episodic memory. In T. Fawns (Ed.), Memory and meaning: Digital differences (pp. 75–98). Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gemmel, J., Leuder, R., & Bell, G. (2003). My Lifebits timestore. In Proceedings of ACM SIGMM 2003 Workshop on Experential Telepresence (ETP 2003) (p. 7). ACM.

  • Hand, M. (2014). Persistent traces, potential memories: Smartphones and the negotiation of visual, locative, and textual data in personal life. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. Epub ahead of print 18August 2014. Online First. 1–18.

  • Hayles, N. K. (2007). Narrative and database: Natural symbionts. PMLA, 1603–1608.

  • Hildebrandt, M. (2006). Privacy and identity. In E. Claes, A. Dugg, & S. Gutwirth (Eds.), Privacy and the criminal law (pp. 43–60). Antwerp/Oxford: Intersentia.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hodges, S., Berry, E., & Wood, K. (2011). SenseCam: A wearable camera that stimulates and rehabilitates autobiographical memory. Memory, 19(7), 685–696.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jacquemard, T., Novitzky, P., O’Brolcháin, F., Smeaton, A. F., & Gordijn, B. (2014a). Challenges and opportunities of lifelog technologies: A literature review and critical analysis. Science and Engineering Ethics, 20(2), 379–409.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jacquemard, T., Smeaton, A. F., & Gordijn, B. (2014) Lifelogs and autonomy. CLARITY: Centre for Sensor Web Technologies, Insight: Centre for Data Analytics, Dublin City University Institute of Ethics, available online through researchgate,

  • Janevic, M. R., McLaughlin, S. J., & Connell, C. M. (2012). Overestimation of physical activity in a nationally-representative sample of underactive adults with diabetes. Medical Care, 50(5), 441.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kikhia, B., Hallberg, J., Synnes, K., & Sani, Z. U. H. (2009). Context-aware life-logging for persons with mild dementia. In Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, 2009. EMBC 2009. Annual International Conference of the IEEE (pp. 6183-6186). IEEE.

  • Koops, B. J. (2011). Forgetting footprints, shunning shadows: A critical analysis of the ‘right to be forgotten’ in big data practice. In SCRIPTed, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 229–256, 2011 Tilburg Law School Research Paper No. 08/2012.

  • Korenhof, P. (2013). Forgetting bits and pieces: An exploration of the “right to be forgotten” as an implementation of “forgetting” in online memory processes. Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society Law & Technology Working Paper No. 4/2013, 2 December 2013, Version 3.1.

  • Korenhof, P., Ausloos, J., Szekely, I., Ambrose, M., Sartor, G., & Leenes, R. (2015). Timing the right to be forgotten: A study into “Time” as a factor in deciding about retention or erasure of data. In Reforming European data protection law (pp. 171–201). Springer, Netherlands.

  • Kosinski, M., Stillwell, D., & Graepel, T. (2013). Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(15), 5802–5805.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Matheson, D. (2008). Deeply personal information and the reasonable expectation of privacy in Tessling. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 50(3), 349–366.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mayer-Schönberger, V. (2009). Delete. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P. (1992). Unity and purpose in human lives: The emergence of identity as a life story. In R. A. Zucker, A. I. Rabin, J. Aronoff, & S. J. Frank (Eds.), Personality structure in the life course (pp. 131–148). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P. (1996). Narrating the self in adulthood. In J. E. Birren, G. M. Kenyon, J. Ruth, J. J. F. Schroots, & T. Svensson (Eds.), Aging and biography: Explorations in adult development (pp. d131–d148). New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P. (2003). Identity and the life story. In R. Fivush & C. A. Haden (Eds.), Autobiographical memory and the construction of a narrative self: Developmental and cultural processes (pp. 187–207). Mahway, MJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Neisser, U. (1994). Self-narratives: True and false. In U. Neisser & R. Fivush (Eds.), The remembering self: Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative (pp. 1–18). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • O’Hara, K. (2010). Narcissus to a man: Lifelogging, technology, and the normativity of truth. Second Annual SenseCam Symposium, Dublin, available online at

  • O’Hara, K., Morris, R., Shadbolt, N., Hitch, G. J., Hall, W., & Beagrie, N. (2006). Memories for life: A review of the science and technology’. Journal of the Royal Society, Interface, 3, 351–365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • O’Hara, K., Tuffield, M. M., & Shadbolt, N. (2008). Lifelogging: Privacy and empowerment with memories for life. Identity in the Information Society, 1(1), 155–172.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Parasie, S., & Dagiral, E. (2012). Data-driven journalism and the public good: “Computer-assisted-reporters” and “programmer-journalists” in Chicago. New Media & Society, 15(6), 853–871.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Parker, E. S., Cahill, L., & McGaugh, J. I. (2006). A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase, 12, 15–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Price, J., & Davis, B. (2008). The woman who can’t forget: The extraordinary story of living with the most remarkable memory known to science. A memoir. New York, NY: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sellen, A. J., Fogg, A., Aitken, M., Hodges, S., Rother, C., & Wood, K. (2007). Do life-logging technologies support memory for the past? an experimental study using sensecam. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 81–90). ACM.

  • Sellen, A., & Whittaker, S. (2010). Beyond total capture: A constructive critique of lifelogging. Communications of the ACM, 53(5), 70–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N., & Espinoza, G. (2008). Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 420–433.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van den Eede, Y. (2010). Technological remembering/forgetting: A Faustian bargain? Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, 2(2), 167–180.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van der Sloot, B. (2014). Privacy as human flourishing: Could a shift towards virtue ethics strengthen privacy protection in the age of Big Data? 5 (2014) JIPITEC 230, para 1.

  • van Heerde, H. J. W. (2010). Privacy-aware data management by means of data degradation: Making private data less sensitive over time. Eschede, Netherlands: University of Twente Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zeit Online (2011). Betrayed by our own data. [Online Article]. Available online at

  • Zhou, L. M., & Gurrin, C. (2012). A survey on life logging data capturing. SenseCam Symposium 2012, 3–4 April 2012, Oxford, UK.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jacquelyn Ann Burkell.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Burkell, J.A. Remembering me: big data, individual identity, and the psychological necessity of forgetting. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 17–23 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Privacy
  • Identity
  • Right to be forgotten