Are you in charge of your digital self?

28th May 2015 Posted by: Abby

We love to spread stories of people using technology to make the world a better place but we are well aware that technology (and people) can have negative affects, often in unintended ways. We think it’s important to question and be critical about technology, including tech that is apparently ‘for good’.

The technology people create often has strong idealistic underpinnings and many ‘techies’ think they are making things better for the world. The founder of MIT Media Lab Nicholas Negroponte said that the internet will 'flatten organisations, globalise society, decentralise control, and help harmonise people'. But as Ethan Zuckerman, another MIT Media Lab leader has highlighted 'there is a difference between what networked technology could, in principle, do and what it actually does'.

We think it is important to probe the origins and outcomes of that disconnect. We kicked off this conversation as part of Digital Shoreditch with Sarah Gold, a designer who proposed The Alternet, a civic network, and James Darling a developer currently immersed in the Ministry of Justice. We investigate the power of people who create the technologies we use and ask who (or what) will be technology's conscience? You can watch the full discussion here.

One unintended outcome of the networked world is the ever-expanding quantities of data held about each of us. It has led many to probe the importance of data ownership and the potential that data profiles have to define who we are. As Marshall McCluhan famously said ‘we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.’ This is certainly true with technology, as laws and regulations are now being defined by our online profile. James Bridle’s latest project Citizen Ex defines a new form of citizenship based on your digital profile, ‘algorithm citizenship’. Complicated terms aside, it’s drawn from real scenarios - the NSA is not allowed to spy on US Citizens but they define who is and isn’t a US Citizen based on individual's browsing data. Unheard of, we thought citizenship was defined by the country that protects you and that you probably pay tax to, well…not online. The data has begun to shape our rights.

This is a good time to introduce you to this short film we made featuring Sarah Gold. It is a beautifully simple illustration of how our data may begin to shape us. Sarah takes us on a journey from the beginnings of our digital profile and pushes us to question if we need to switch from disempowered consumers of the web to citizens of the network. If you are convinced but unsure of the alternatives take a look at The Alternet, the Indie Phone  and this research from Tim Davies.

Dark Matter - Personal Data from Tech for Good TV on Vimeo.

Want to know more?

Subscribe to the Tech For Good newsletter or follow us on Twitter at @techforgoodtv to be kept updated.


Plus here are some of Sarah's thoughts on themes in the film, and beyond, in the world of personal data:

What's a digital profile?

Your digital profile is the digital representation of your identity. Technology has enabled ubiquitous and inexpensive data mining and analysis, so even the most trivial activity is recorded - from where you click on a webpage to what words you type into a search engine.

Over time we have developed many fragmented online profiles. While one company may only know your email address and name, another that it has an agreement with, may know your face and where you live. Currently we cannot view our fragmented, online selves, nor can we see the associations between our profiles. We have made ourselves vulnerable.


What does it mean?

This data gives companies huge power: not only access our behaviour patterns, but the opportunity to analyse them too and calculate the most effective way to target you. Companies can now even predict  what you will do before you do it. Each of us are part of huge, growing, detailed model of consumer behaviour that we have little to no control over. 

As we add more and more connected devices into our lives, like smart thermostats or smart watches, we allow even more granular tracking of ourselves, even in the most intimate and private moments of our lives. So as data capitalists continue to invest in popular and innovative digital technologies, they find new scenarios for our data and intensify the information economy.

We live in a surveillance society - we have massive surveillance systems that now underpin modern existence. These systems represent a basic, complex infrastructure which assumes that gathering and processing personal data is vital to contemporary living.


Why are companies collecting data from us? 

1. Because access to knowledge is power.

2. Their business models rely on the information economy. So services invest in technologies designed to gather as much personal data as possible, to maintain and grow their profits. In this scenario, our data fuels their business. We have become the product.

3. The combined effect of the impending Internet of Things and our growing digital culture, means that this information economy is seeping into more-and more of our lives. Much of the creep of the information economy is due to the fact we have no ownership of our personal data.


Why don't we have control of our personal data?

Quite simply, technology has moved much faster than the legal system. So for some time, the internet giants have had ultimate supremacy to decide the rules for themselves. Internet companies show no compunction about their activities with our data, because they see their activity as benign. In fact, it would adversely affect their profits, so there is no incentive for these companies to change.

Right now there is no legal concept that states you are the sole owner of your personal data, and that the collection of this data without your consent is a crime. Perhaps the closest offence for this right now is stalking, but its irrelevant because you cannot claim that your phone is stalking you!

There is no precedent for fair data compensation and it is unclear who should or could, determine a reasonable outcome. Indeed the value created from data is not intrinsic within the data itself, but is created by aggregation and analysis. Additionally, it is reasonable to assume any political decision will be territorial, which conflicts with the non territorial nature of the internet.


Where does it start? As a child

Innocence of youth: starts out as a great thing. Signing up to Facebook. Using first apps. Playing games on xbox.

-    Parents making social media profiles for their children, or posting information about their child to their own social media pages.

-    Playing games on a tablet /xbox produces data that is recorded.

-    Owning your first smart phone or tablet, walking into shops your device is tracked.

-    When you make your first email address, and start signing up for different applications or services.

-    Using a fitbitthe list is endless!


What's your digital profile like by the time you're an adult? By the time you're an adult...

Companies know so much about you, your likes, dislikes, family, finance. These are used to promote things to you.

The problem is that the dataveillance of our lives is insidious. It could be the a limited choice of options or an advertising nudge down a path you thought you chose. It isnt about loud marketing. Its rather like boiling frog in the famous anecdote, we find ourselves unwittingly being manipulated. The central issue is that data collection builds a concentration of knowledge about our digital selves, which can be freely aggregated, analysed and used for manipulation, discrimination or profiling by anyone who has access to it, for any purpose.


How do you imagine the life of someone that's had a digital profile since birth?

There are two big technologies that digital natives will experience that non of us have really seen, and thats drones and the Internet of Things. Theyll likely have spent some of their life with a selfie drone, publishing every moment of their life live via their own personal cameraman. So every moment will be recorded in their digital shadow, available for their children and grandchildren to scrutinise and view. There are no secrets. 


What's the ultimate end of it all? (bleak view)

It would seem as if your whole life has been predetermined.

The digital profile profiling is a precursor for lack of choice, cultural balkanisation and ultimately compromised freedoms. We lose our autonomy to bots and algorithms. Without our autonomy we limit our ability to play, experiment and happen on innovation or the culture we say we value. Everything will be mediated by code.


So whats the solution to all this?

Could we simply go offline? In reality, most of us would not like to be without search engines or social media, and would be unwilling to live with the social implications of a sudden shift towards an offline world, not only in terms of its impact on our own lifestyles but on our economy and employment. In some cases, it may already be impossible to go offline. So regardless of what we may want, we have little choice - we live in a world that is online.

New projects promising anonymity online are essential for certain groups of individuals. But for the everyday internet user, anonymity is not that useful and offers false choice. To become anonymous you have to give up so much of what you enjoy doing on the web, for instance you could not use your real name, buy anything with your debit or credit card, upload photos

What we really need is the data paradigm to be flipped, so we own our data. We need a civic framework for our data. This is a critical, disruptive shift because if we own our data, we regain control over how our data is used and so our position transfers from disempowered consumer to empowered coproducer. With citizen data licences we decide what data we want to share, who with, what they can do with the data, if they can share with similar organisations and a whole host of other conditions. Like Creative Commons licences, the data licences encourage data sharing but also give the choice of complete privacy.


What can we be doing right now to help this movement towards a digital licence?/Protecting our data? 

-    Check the privacy settings on your phone or tablet. Make sure you check them every time you run a system update.

-    Try to turn off your bluetooth and wifi when youre not using them.

-    Install privacy plug-ins for your browser, like Badger for instance that blocks trackers embedded within webpages.

-    Support alternative services by using them. For instance try Duck Duck Go instead of your usual search engine.


-    For those more tech savvy, start using PGP encryption for your emails. Encourage your colleagues to do the same.

NB/ Worth looking at particularly their Me & My Shadow project


blog comments powered by Disqus