Do you know where your online data is?

With our personal data constantly gathered and analysed, it’s the grim reality that the internet knows you better than you know yourself. As technology follows our patterns, in turn, it can predict our behaviour.

“To understand someone, it’s not to ask what they think, it’s to observe their behaviours. You observe a pattern and patterns are very hard to break,” says Eric Lim from the UNSW School of Information Systems and Technology Management.

“Every day you wake up, you do certain things (on the internet), you check your email, you check the sports news, you read the articles with certain themes … and so on, it develops a pattern.”

Lim says social media platforms have a huge understanding of you and can predict your behaviour better than you can yourself. He believes that it is almost virtually impossible to keep yourself offline.

“When you have a fixed profile … and you keep dumping information onto it … social media platforms can act on that profile and it’s mostly accurate and that’s frightening,” he says.

Deleting your digitial footprint is impossible

It’s virtually impossible to delete your digital footprint unless you know where all your data has gone to.

The moment you choose to go online or buy a phone, or you’re logged into a computer, “basically you have given a huge chunk of your data away”.

He suggests you could request social media sites delete your profile, or ask Google to delete your search history – but these platforms are also connected to third parties and they have collected data from you.

“You can only delete your digital footprint if you knew where your data has gone to. If you don’t possess that information, how are you going to do that?”

He believes people are concerned about where their data goes but many don’t know what to do about it and “feel powerless”.

The high price of data misdeeds

Recently Google was fined $250m for allegedly tracking data on children as young as six who were watching videos of toys and television shows on YouTube. In July, Facebook was fined roughly $7.1bn by the Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency of the United States, as part of a settlement over privacy violations for breaching user privacy.

From the implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation on 25 May 2018 to February this year, more than 59,000 data breach notifications were reported to Data Protection Authorities across Europe by public and privately-owned organisations.

Lim says it reaches a point where security breaches and privacy leaks keep happening and people become desensitised.

“We start off with being very concerned … then every day we read more and more stories about such security breaches, people just kind of get a sense of helplessness.”

Why we give our data away

Our actions allow companies to collect our personal data. Thousands of people decided to download FaceApp, an application by Russian company Wireless Lab which used artificial intelligence to generate highly realistic transformations of faces in photographs. By agreeing to the terms of service, users allowed the company to take possession of photographs people uploaded and other information for commercial purposes.

Users were willing to sign away their data because they were having fun, Lim says. “We knowingly do these things and then we turn around and say, ‘Hey, you know that’s not what we wanted’.”

Users have a similar attitude to rewards cards at supermarkets, which offer discounts on purchases in exchange for data.

“Each day, whenever I check out at the supermarket, I swipe my card. The supermarkets know these are the foods that I eat. I constantly question myself as to why do I do it? I know they are collecting data about my food preferences, but I still do it all for the sake of a few dollars of discount even when I don’t really need those savings.

“We can’t turn around and complain that we are concerned when we are complacent in all the things that we’re doing that give out our data freely.”

Lim doesn’t believe we are aware of to what extent our own complacency is shaping the collection and use of data globally.

“We can run a virtual private network every time we go online. Or we can use a browser that does not track our search terms and history, for example, DuckDuckGo, but we choose to go with Google, even though we know that Google tracks you with everything and shares all these data.

“We don’t want to take that extra effort to do the things that are considered less convenient.”

“Because we’re not willing to trade off all these conveniences that we have. It would really take a very special kind of person, a strong motivation beyond our human comprehension, to go offline completely.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

Please login to favourite this article.