My website occasionally receives requests from users asking for their account to be deleted. The website itself is a dating site that stores messages between users, personal information they add to their public profile, logs and stats about their usage, etc.

While the site currently lets an admin 'deactivate' a user's account such that it no longer appears publicly, actually deleting the user record and its associated data from the database is problematic. Information we'd be deleting about a user is occasionally necessary and always useful.

One alternative I have toyed with would be to attempt to anonymize the user by clearing all personally identifying pieces of information. Reading about the de-anonymization that occurred with the Netflix dump, it looks as though this could be quite hard to do effectively.

Should I have to comply with this request, legally or otherwise? ie. does the site need to have functionality that allows us to completely delete all traces of a user? Would attempting to anonymise a user be sufficient? I understand Facebook allow for your account to be 'deleted', but do their really remove all traces?

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    What country are you in? What does your EULA say? This may be better suited to law.stackexchange – Numeron Nov 14 '16 at 4:28
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    I agree that you need to check first your local laws and then any other laws which might apply because of the location of the user, the location of your company, the location of the web server ... . Thus off topic here and on topic at law.stackexchange.com. – Steffen Ullrich Nov 14 '16 at 5:46
  • How do you know the request actually comes form the account holder? Are they logged in when they do the request? – user13695 Nov 14 '16 at 8:28
  • The website services users from around the world. Requests come via direct email or an on-site messaging system when logged in. Ok, thanks for pointing me towards law.stackexchange. While I realised there were legal elements to this question, I was hoping to receive answers that focused more on the broader topic of anonymization vs. deletion. – ajbeaven Nov 14 '16 at 20:14

Besides the legal stuff, I consider your anonymization a step in the right direction. As a developer myself I know about the difficulties of delete data in a relational database.

As your customer I would like 2 things:

  • not being able to be identified by you, the website (this means cleaning up the user name, address, IP-Logs etc...)
  • not being able to be enumerated at the user creation / password reset page

As others said, consult a lawyer. You might be obliged to clean up better than proposed here.

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