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(Digital) Footprints


With all due apologies to the original author, whoever that may be…

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with Tim Cook. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints. Other times there were one set of footprints. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow, or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to Tim Cook, “You promised me, Tim, That if I bought Apple, you would walk with me always. But I noticed that during the most trying periods of my life There have only been one set of prints in the sand. Why, When I have needed you most, you have not been there for me?” Tim Cook replied, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints Is when your iPhone was off.”

In 2010, a TV series called Caprica premiered. It was a prequel spinoff of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series. That connection isn’t particularly important. What I want to call attention to is a particular story element. One of the main characters is a teenage girl who creates a digital “clone” of herself. This copy pulls together disparate information about the original, creating an almost perfect duplicate, with the main drawback being that she only exists in the digital world. She explains her own existence like so:

The human brain contains roughly 300 megabytes of information. Not much, when you get right down to it. The question isn’t how to store it. It’s how to access it…. People leave more than footprints as they travel through life. Medical scans, D.N.A. profiles, psych evaluations, school records, e-mails, recording video/audio, C.A.T. scans, genetic typing, synaptic records, security cameras, test results, shopping records, talent shows, ball games, traffic tickets, restaurant bills, phone records, music lists, movie tickets, TV shows. Even prescriptions for birth control.

Caprica was science fiction, and indeed, the idea of creating a faithful digital copy of yourself still remains fantastical. What’s not fanciful, on the other hand, is the massive amount of information we all leave behind–our own digital footprints. Thinking about this isn’t intended to strike fear into anyone, but to provoke examination of just how much information we are spreading around, perhaps unawares.

As a thought experiment, consider all the different digital services you use and what they might know about you. I’ll go as far as providing examples for myself. Verizon, for instance, knows all of my Internet activities, since I use their FiOS service. Sprint knows what’s in my calls and texts and mobile data usage. Google knows about quite a bit of that since I also use Google Voice. A handful of credit card companies know what my shopping habits are like. Amazon has no doubt built quite a profile on me, since I’ve been shopping there for many years. Google also knows where I live and work, when and where I go when I leave home (most of the time), and since I use Gmail, Google also knows what almost all of my bills are, how much they are, when they’re due, etc. It knows when I’m traveling, whether I am traveling alone, when I’ll be back, and so on.

Facebook, of course, knows who my friends are, and in some cases how long I’ve known them. Regardless of my set relationship status, it knows who I am romantically involved with. Just like Gmail and my years’ worth of email, Facebook has years’ worth of chat messages to draw on. And though it’s against Facebook’s terms of service, one enterprising individual wrote an application that tracks when your friends are sleeping.

It’s discussed in Dataclysm how people’s digital habits allow for all kinds of inferences most people might never think of. The example of tracking when you are asleep, however, doesn’t require anything except paying attention to when you are and aren’t using your devices. It would be laborious for a person to watch you for 24 hours a day, but computers can do so tirelessly. What you search for on Google or any other search engine is indexed, stored, and correlated with searches you and others have performed. The way people use Google can reliably pinpoint the epicenters of earthquakes, the spread of diseases, the location of a protest or other event, the political leanings of an individual, group, or area, and an endless supply of other impressions and attitudes. What’s important is that, most of the time, we don’t think about being watched. A search prompt is non-threatening. It’s not as if you’re telling a person that you’re worried you have chlamydia and need to know what the symptoms are. The search box is impersonal. It doesn’t judge.

But there are people behind every one of these services. Most of them are just doing a job and, frankly, few of us are interesting enough to directly pay much attention to. We rarely even feel like anyone’s paying attention, until something happens to break the illusion that we’re just anonymously browsing. Perhaps the example I see come up most often is when someone searches for an item on Google, or even just mentions it in a chat, then sees ads for it pop up on Facebook. It might be easy to imagine it’s a coincidence, the first time it happens. But then it crops up again and again, and you soon realize something, somewhere knows what you searched for or mentioned and is now going to advertise it to you until you bite. This unsettles people because it draws attention to the fact that we’re being tracked, watched, recorded, logged, analyzed, profiled, and aggregated. These dozens of companies–though they become fewer as they consolidate, and there is always consolidation happening–know more about you than perhaps anyone else in your life. They can know you better than your parents, your siblings, your romantic partners. They watch, usually in silence, but sometimes communicate via ads that are conveniently fashioned to attract your attention.

These trends are set only to increase rather than roll back. Companies like Google and Facebook and Apple and others will learn more and more about all of us. Thus far, much of that information’s potential is yet untapped, for good or ill. There are certainly benefits to having such a wealth of information, from historical and linguistic research to disaster response, civil planning, and good governance. But then there are the downsides: the lack of privacy, the risk of abuse by both governments, companies, and malicious individuals, not to mention the consequences of particularly sensitive data being breached, which happens all too often. As our lives become irrevocably digitized and quantified, it’s virtually a given that this data will be used for all sorts of purposes, many of which we can’t even predict yet.

If someone were to build a digital clone of you, what would it know about you? What digital footprints have you left behind?

Photo by m_hweldon