You are under surveillance right now, and it’s mostly voluntary. In fact, everything you view on the Internet—everything you share, every transaction you make, every shred of digital data—becomes a part of what’s called a “digital footprint”, a mass trail of personal information that’s nearly impossible to quantify or neatly define. Your personal data is continually observed in order to gather information on what kind of consumer you are. From a smartphone app that knows you’re unwell before you do, to improving Netflix’s video quality and recommendation engine, data is used for just about everything in the digital age.
In light of Privacy Awareness Week (15-20 May), I decided to investigate digital footprints and the unfathomable mass of data that is collected on every individual who uses the Internet. I caught up with the director of the Centre for Internet Safety, Adjunct Professor Nigel Phair, to find out more about digital footprints and how students like myself can better protect their privacy.
“A digital footprint individually relates to your social media presence and the types of websites you visit and interact with…It [the biggest risk] is [students] not realising how big that footprint is.”
Being aware of the size of your digital footprint is pretty challenging though, since it’s more than just what you share online; it’s all the data you leave behind on the Internet in your history, which gets stored on your browser as cookies. In an article for the ABC, journalist Nick Ross used his Google maps history to demonstrate the magnitude of metadata. It’s important to note, however, that data is collected regardless of whether you have location settings enabled. For example, when you pay by debit or credit card, your location is automatically tracked in your metadata.
In Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, author Bruce Schneier highlights the scope of knowledge that web sites collect.
“I used to say that Google knows more about what I’m thinking of than my wife does. But that doesn’t go far enough. Google knows more about what I’m thinking of than I do, because Google remembers all of it perfectly and forever.”
Like most people my age, I use Facebook fairly regularly, as well as Twitter and Instagram. Using these three social media platforms, I communicate with varying degrees of publicity. My posts on Facebook and Instagram only directly reach my friends or peers. On Twitter, however, the audience is indeterminable. Regardless of what personal information I physically disclose, a dossier is created from my data, which sites like Facebook can use at their will for advertising.
Take Facebook’s Newsfeed, for example, which uses an algorithm to deliver personalised streams of content and ads based on the Web sites you’ve recently visited. It judges what you’d find most interesting based on a variety of factors, including who you interact with most and your behaviour online. Back in 2013, Facebook was exposed for tracking data on the stuff that users typed out as a status but didn’t actually post, as well as users’ demographic information, behavioural features, and the political ideology of a user in relation to their friends’ beliefs.
In Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel argue that Facebook “wants to build a system that anticipates your needs.” As a result, audiences might only see, for example, videos of cats on their Newsfeed or read books that align specifically with their political opinion. The problem here is that people become so boxed in that they’re basically in a bubble. Furthermore, sociologists argue that Facebook’s structure increases the likelihood of posting feel-good stories rather than more challenging narratives, such as conflicts in other nations or government policies that will have a large impact on Australia. In many ways, this use of your digital footprint is a double-edged sword.
In our interview, Mr Phair pointed to sites with flight-booking services, as an example of the ways that your digital footprint can be used in a good way.
“Any time I visit Qantas’ Web site, it already knows that I live in Canberra and shows flights that are relevant. This gives a good user experience.”
At the face of it, this is a pretty good thing to happen. If your digital footprint shapes the content you’re seeing, it logically follows that the content is relevant to you and that can be a good user experience. However, data banks of online sellers like Amazon, and in some respects, Facebook, hold access to your most subtle preferences. Scoble and Israel propose that there are five forces shaping the “age of context”, which refers to technologies understanding you and your environment. These are mobile, social media, data, sensors, and location-based services, all of which are part of your digital footprint.
As a result, our digital footprints, particularly on social media, are more relevant than ever before. In Australia, the percentage of the population owning a smartphone is at 75% and the average person has five connected devices. Facebook increasingly becomes relevant in the ways we form judgements, and a singular profile contains records of multiple digital footprints. In an article for The New Inquiry, Kate Crawford discusses the anxieties associated with personalised identifiable information online and the fear that our data online “is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent is.”
The flipside of this is that it’s becoming less ideal to minimise your online presence. Even though there are clear risks attached to your digital identity, going off the grid entirely isn’t an option for most people. Many jobs, particularly in communication and media industries, require a social media presence, engagement and influence. This sort of surveillance, and the content and metadata collected, has an impact on privacy online, security, and reputation. In addition, some psychologists suggest that avoidance of social media is “suspicious.”
When I asked Mr Phair about how students could go about minimising their digital footprints, he noted that it’s difficult to do without changing your behaviours online.
“It’s doing little things to be aware of where your personal information is going.”
These can vary from the mildly cautious to the extreme, depending on a variety of factors in your everyday life. For example, there are a number of ways to get rid of cookies whilst browsing the Internet, in order to minimise tracking. Firstly, delete cookies from your browser and turn on private browsing mode to limit the information stored about particular Web sites. Ad block extensions are also a really useful way to minimise online tracking from Facebook. In an article for The Guardian, Charles Arthur advises on some simple strategies to get rid of traces you’ve left online that may be harmful.
In an interview for The Intercept, Edward Snowden describes practices that the average person should adopt in order to reclaim a level of privacy. He suggests that individuals should encrypt their phone calls and text messages, using a smartphone app such as Signal. Snowden also suggests using a password manager, describing the way people’s information gets exposed as a “data dump.” What this means is that, for example, if you signed up for Bebo years ago and have since stopped using it altogether but used the same email and password you currently use, someone hacking your account could mean they can now access your Gmail account. A password manager enables you to create unique passwords online for everything you do, but you don’t have to actually memorise them.
Tracing and minimising your digital footprint is increasingly harder in an age where everything is controlled by a computer. Debates around privacy are often complex, but a good way to start minimising your digital footprint is to simply be aware of what you’re posting online.