Whether it is shopping, banking, even socializing, Canadians are — seemingly on a daily basis — leaving behind a “digital shadow” that reflect their activities, interests, intentions and desires. All that information, when compiled and analyzed, can paint a very specific digital picture of someone that they never intended to share.
Jacquie Burkell, assistant dean research, faculty of information and media studies, discussed this very challenge on Oct. 30, during the return of Western University’s popular complimentary lecture series, Classes Without Quizzes.
Burkell’s hour-long presentation, Every Move You Make: Living with Online Surveillance, was attended by approximately 150 people at the Central Library’s Stevenson & Hunt Room. Burkell examined the practice of online behavioural tracking and strategies people can use to monitor and limit their own digital presence.
“It is like leaving bread crumbs in the woods except it isn’t quite that directed; we are doing it without recognizing it,” Burkell said. “Every single piece of data, in and of itself, is and appears, inconsequential. Every little piece of information is pretty meaningless, but when you put it all together, you realize you are leaving not just a snapshot, but a digital shadow.”
The analogy of a shadow, Burkell said, is quite apt, except it isn’t just a one-time flat image that is being created. Instead, it is a very detailed record of what someone has done and where they have been.
That amount of data can be used to draw, what Burkell calls, “very powerful statistical inferences.” While that might sound complicated, a perfect example is found on Amazon.com. After all, when a user of the Amazon website returns, quite often there is a message saying if you liked those books, you might enjoy these books — or words to that effect.
There are researchers at MIT, Burkell said, who recently were showing how someone can take publically available Facebook information and infer “with incredible accuracy” things like political affiliation, and even sexual orientation, none of which was intentionally being shared.
“It isn’t like they are getting it from something you asked in a Google search, they are getting it up from straight up statistical inference from information you know you left out there,” Burkell said. “It is in the realm of big data, which is all kinds of things, sometimes it is everything, but each one of us is a massive big data engine. We are producing an unbelievable amount of tiny data points around who we are and what we do. What can be done with that data is quite surprising.”
For many, having that digital shadow isn’t particularly concerning. In fact, in some cases the shadow is even helpful.
After all, who doesn’t like to get a tip about what their next favourite novel might be. At the same time, Burkell said people have to recognize the danger is in potentially allowing consequences they hadn’t thought about.
For example, imagine someone searching symptoms of a stroke. Maybe they search that information over a trio of websites. Then, perhaps, that information is shared by a third-party tracking that data. That information could be shared with a company that offers travel insurance. Suddenly someone’s insurance picture could look quite different.
Some people don’t care; others really do and take precautions to limit the information they are sharing. So what can people do to protect themselves? Burkell said first off, people really should read the terms of references in privacy policies — which she realizes practically nobody does.
They can set privacy settings in the applications and software they are using. That is something Burkell said is particularly important because most people just go with the default settings, which “won’t really protect you.”
“We have to get loud about it. Really it is a matter of becoming educated,” Burkell said. “We also can’t be naive about the power of the information we are leaving behind. The virtual crumbs we are leaving behind.”