How would you feel if your employer demanded you hand over the passwords to your Facebook and Twitter accounts? Or how about applying for a new job knowing that the potential employer is using a web service that will sift through years of your life online? Perhaps your insurance company automatically investigates your credit card history, your health records and search pattern to determine whether your premiums should be increased? And don’t forget that when you go to the bathroom at the bar, your new hot date will pull out a smartphone and do a quick background check to find out if you own a house or have a bad reputation.
It’s happening to people right now.
What about your children’s lives being mined by companies from birth onward so they can place advertisements around their digital presence, targeted to their interests and purchases – song by song, game by game, poke by poke, like by like? By the time they apply for their first bank account, their friends and family have been cross-referenced in anonymous databases, thanks to a game app that has uploaded their photo library and address book. And the university employee who decides if they qualify for a scholarship will consult search engines to fill any holes in their biography.
All that is also already happening to people right now.
It could well be that you show up at the airport and are turned away for a silly post to your friends that rubs the immigration or customs officers the wrong way. And don’t feel strange when the cashier at the grocery store or the hotel receptionist knows where you were last week, since their new checkout terminal pulls data down from location-based services and social networks and then matches it against a biometric faceprint of yours, which in turn brings up all recent credit card and mobile wallet transactions.
They will still take your money, but they might treat you better or not give you a discount – all depending on your past online behavior – and maybe even your mental health. And if you give a company access to your DNA data, they even offer you VIP treatment, because they can mine and resell your genome.
Except for the last example, none of these examples are science fiction but already doing their algorithmic work in the wild as commercial products or experiments. Personal data has become the new oil. It drives the Internet economy. “Free” is the default on the web, but the price you pay is your personal data – the more precise the better. Companies are in a digital gold rush building up the most detailed identity banks, which can deliver a complete puzzle of every single individual on earth.
Little thought, however, is given to the question what damage this oversharing and openness by default do to our identity, our roles as family members, students and teachers, employers and employees, consumers and citizens. This much is certain: It has become very difficult to clean up your past, let alone start over with a blank slate.
About You Taking Control
This book is not about abstaining from using the web, mobile or social media. It is simply too much fun. And we have to participate in order not to handicap ourselves socially or professionally. This book is about knowing and taking control of your own original identity and thus your personal data, and not letting yourself be turned into one single, machine-readable entity. Having only one identity in the digital world will make large companies happy, but it is diametrically opposed to what makes us complex human beings.
Neither is this book about government snooping. That’s a topic deserving its own small library. We are concerned with commercial tracking and how you, as an individual, can engage in meaningful digital self-defense. Big companies are sitting on more and more useful data about individuals, data that the state won’t have the same access to. And as opposed to states, companies don’t necessarily work – or have to work – in the interest of citizens.
Regulators from the European Union and the United States to India and China are wrestling with the question how to protect consumers and citizens. Is privacy a right or a commodity? At the same time, they have a vested interest in accessing this information themselves.
No matter how successful authorities and regulators might be in protecting us, the law is always playing catch-up with what is happening in the real world. Which means that as individuals, we need to take care of ourselves before technical progress creates a fait accompli.
Many digital services are certainly useful. They help us stay in touch with friends and relatives, save money and time, and let people market themselves to make a living or indulge their vanity. To some, the upside of these many services is so great that we should just forget about privacy. Privacy is dead, get over it, they say.
We beg to differ. We are talking a lot about “privacy,” as this is the term society has used for a long time. “Privacy,” however, is in many ways an outdated and abused term, and the idea behind it needs a new definition: It’s about my ability to decide who knows what about me when and in what context.
Often we don’t tell our best friend the same things we tell our spouse. Neither do we tell our boss the same things we share with our parents or children. We are different people in different situations. And sometimes, we just want to be left alone and remain anonymous. This book will address all these facets of regaining control over what matters to you and who ought to know about it.
Fake it now and then
Opposition to the personal data gold rush is slowly forming. The same happened over a century ago, when some intellectuals started a conversation about how “instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprises have invaded the sacred precincts of the private and domestic life.” As Helen Nissenbaum, a professor at New York University, writes in her book “Privacy in Context,” it was the first step to establish the right to privacy. Today, critics worry about the long-term consequences of this giant database in the cloud that will track everyone for life and never forget. The European proposal to create a government-mandated “right to be forgotten” is a clear step where the debate is going.
That’s where this book wants to help. Go online and play, network and shop, we say. But be aware that there are always dozens of entities which you don’t know that will track and capture your moves, your intentions and your preferences. They are there to mine and market the pieces that make up who you are. Your identity is at stake.
So why not fake it now and then? Why volunteer every last detail about you to people and software you don’t know? Let´s throw some sand into the cogs of the machine-readable life and just pretend now and then. Life without creative friction is an ideal of economists, but not a reflection of what makes us well-rounded, curious humans. You have the right to be silly or silent, the right to be inventive, the right to say no to algorithms, and most importantly, the right to be left alone, to have space to think about who matters to you and what not to share.
This book is divided into 13 chapters. Following a couple of introductory remarks in the first two chapters about why privacy is so important and how much our personal data is worth, it forms a guide through a day in the life of all of us. All stories about the consequences of behavior and interactions online, the so-called cases, are real stories with real people who are referred to by a fictitious first name. Just as you do when you are online, we believe our interviewees have a right to be anonymous. But we know their names and have their contact information, or we have their stories from credible and validated sources.
Our cases stem from people all around the world. The web is global – so is this book. Use and abuse of personal data today are definitely a bigger problem in the US than in Europe, but almost all examples in the book are happening in Europe – or will very soon.
As you read this book, you will come across many tools, tips and tricks which will be explained in more detail in Chapter 13. We are not doing this to help criminals hide or commit crimes, but as with all tools, some of them can be used for nefarious purposes.
If you only have time for one take-away, it’s this: When in doubt, don’t post or click. Don’t give them your information. Don’t expose the identities of your friends and family. Use a pseudonym or alias when signing up for a new service and delete photos of yours where you can. There are many good reasons to consider digital suicide while still alive. Try to wipe your slate as clean as possible while you still can, it’s harder than you might think. There is no real, compelling reason to arrange and live your personal life according to the business model and dystopian notions of one social network or another. You can use your original identity for professional and personal purposes, but as soon as truly private aspects of your life are involved such as on Facebook and Pinterest, or if someone you don’t know or trust demands your data, you should get in the habit of using another name than your own. Go ahead, fake it!
Steffan Heuer & Pernille Tranberg, August 2012