The Big Data generationThe digital footprint - part 2 of 2
The digital footprint revisited
In the last installment, I took a look at what a Digital Footprint is and at how some partied are already misusing people’s personal profiles. As was the case with the game of “Stolen!”
This time let’s take a look at some of the technology behind the scenes while we surf, and point out some less than obvious ways that our character traits can be analyzed by the A.I. algorithms. Finally, I would like to come full-circle and conclude how we as parents can make a difference and teach our children how they can filter their behaviour online, and still make genuine and lasting relationships.
The best way to raise awareness about what a Digital Footprint actually means for the average user, we should take a peek at what goes on behind the scenes, when each and every one of us begins to browse the net. From our perspective, engaging into any net activity might seem very simple and straightforward. We do one thing at a time, read email, browse certain pages, do our daily tasks.
So from the user’s point of view, the whole process is transparent and quite innocuous. Yet if we go under the hood of every Internet browser engagement, some thought provoking, and somewhat frightening facts become evident.
Let’s see what’s going on. And hopefully raise some awareness.
An eye-opener of a plug in
A certain plugin for Chrome and Firefox by the name of Collusion, is maybe one of the best ways to get a fuller picture of what is going behind the scenes while we browse the net. This tool will in a very simple manner visualize what kind of net activity goes on while we surf. Not only that, but the goal of the program is to inform us what happens while we surf, in other words, who tracks our activity.
Collusion watches the trackers which are sucking at our private data, and informs us whom we have given our consent and whom we haven’t. As the figure below illustrates, circles with halo are sites you have visited, circles without halos are sites you haven’t visited. Circles in Red are confirmed tracking sites and circles in gray aren’t, but are still tracking you. A simple visit to any site, will yield a huge net of trackers which glue onto your slighets move on the web.
This will easily cause almost 200 sites to track you, and most of them are giving away your personal information without your consent. This kind of tracking on the world wide web is what’s it’s all about. Your activity and personal information is being analyzed for one simple reason only – it’s a staggering business with a huge financial turn-around.
The financial revenue from this data activity is easily estimated at 40 billion Euro today. So if you want to see how this big business spins its wheels, download Collusion today and see for yourself, the truth behind your every interacion on the web.
So Collusion illustrates what is happening today. And when you think about it, it’s quite absurd, because right this moment some corporations are turning a huge revenue on each and every one of us, without our consent. How does this activity fit into the justice system and how does one regulate this activity?
And considering the explosive growth of this business, what kind of new tracking methods and intensity will we see in tomorrow’s world? The abilities of the algorithms to profile and predict your behaviour is only bound to get better.
These questions, although largely unanswered, are there to raise the kind of awareness which might push us into being more considerate what we share on the net, where we surf and how we educate ourselves and our children to use the World Wide Web.
“Search engines find the information, not necessarily the truth.” – Amit Kalantri
A few hard truths about the future
An essayist aptly named the social media channels as “reputation engines”. She said that one has to be very smart about social media, and rightly so. Leaving too much information, especially discriminatory info on the latest drinking craziness with pals, is certainly not the best move for a future career.
But just as suspicious of nature is that there is no information about you at all on the social media. This absence of information might lead to all sorts of speculation, and certainly won’t help if one has a profession which is highly dependant on the World Wide Web.
Another more sinister part of this equation are that the Reputation Engines can take into account all sorts of information which might be not so obvious.
What kind of friends do you have? How many? What are your friends like? What do they post about themselves? And if they are out of a job, or with no ambition whatsoever, or career goals then this just might say a lot about you. After all they are your friends, aren’t they?
But it doesn’t stop here. When you take into account the most groundbreaking developments in Big Data A.I. algorithms, things start to get really bizarre.
It’s obvious that the explicit information we leave behind, might be damaging to our reputation. But what’s not as obvious is how the information you avoid leaving behind, can be used to indirectly decipher the character traits you are desperately trying to hide. Or the character traits you are not even aware of.
Are you avoiding a certain type of news, but reading another, then it’s quite possible for the algorithms to deduct what kind of deep seated neurosis you might be carrying about.
Or let’s take a look at your number of clicks, their frequency, types of searches you perform, when a new point of interest blossoms up – for example a brand new and shiny car. Looking at your past behavioural patterns, it can be quickly deducted if this is just a coincidental or that you have a major internal struggle whether you deserve it, or can afford it. But maybe most of all, how are you going to explain it to your wife? And if it turns out that you do have an inner struggle, then you just might have an addictive personality. Something even you might not have been quite aware of.
Computer scientist Jennifer Golbeck who studies Big Data algorithms questions another aspect of this escalating ballgame. Per today we know what kind of algorithms we are dealing with. And depsite the heated discussions, some ethical limits are set and can be controlled. But no one has any clue what might happen with the new generation of self-learning algorithms in the coming decade. What kind of revelations will they deduct about our personality. And most of all, who will use it and what kind of agenda will these people/algorithms have?
“So you can “like” these pages, you can post these things about yourself, and then we can infer a completely unrelated trait about you based on a combination of likes or the type of words that you’re using, even if you’re not posting anything. ” – Jennifer Globeck, Computer Scientist
A new frontier – a way forward?
It is a new kind of frontier. One where the real life you and your digital self meld ever more intimately together. A reality where even if you are extra watchful and aware about how to control that flow of information, the best possible version of yourself, it might still be used against you.
So what can we do about this imminent future? One where a lot of decision making might be taken out of our hands. Is there any way we can make a lasting impact? Where we can actually make a difference?
Our voice might not be heard by the future’s governing powers which will make critical decisions. But where it will be heard is in our own family. And by family I mean especially our kids who need to become aware from day one what impact their actions have when they go online.
But I think Digital Footprint awareness is only one part of the puzzle. Maybe the easiest part.
And this brings me full circle to my ending comment in the first part of this article. There I concluded at how privacy is being reinterpreted by the new Digital Millenials. Being rewritten in such a profound way, that the digital self and the real self become one. Where our intimate borders cease to exist in public and the social media becomes a channel where we vent all our personal insecurites, neurosises, and emotional instabilities.
So maybe the tougher challenge is how we raise our kids. Into a place where they use the net as a tool to connect, make lasting relationships, be it personal or professional. But also a place where they can manage to filter themselves, their emotions and behaviour. To understand that what they communicate outwards to others does not orignate from a place which seeks only to get instant confirmation or gratification. And that it’s not based on the amount of likes or comments on Facebook.
But that their need to communicate stems from a grounded appreciation of their own self-worth and the value they are contributing to others. If that comes into place, I believe a much deeper understanding evolves of what to share and what not to share in a given situation. Not one born out of self-censorship or fear but an understanding stemming from the need to provide true value.
Technology woven into words
As long as I can remember, a part of me has always been a keen, albeit very quiet, observer of the world around me. And another part has been a wide-eyed wonder boy who, from the get go, wanted to escape into another dimension, some yet undiscovered version of the land of Oz.
This combination of character has, on more than one occasion, shown itself to be a tad aggravating, and maybe even quite unfortunate to the outside world. And since my verbal skills are still locked away in some deep recess of my being, a talent still awaiting discovery, I had no other choice than to become a visual storyteller dressed up as filmmaker. During that process I also fell in love with words, quite many of them, actually. Since then, there was no turning back, and I became a scribe of the written word.
Through this blog, and through my stories, be they written or told in moving images, I would like to share with you what I feel, think and dream of. And if anything on this blog connects with you, mail me, I would love to hear about it.