Revisiting data porn: your digital footprint in real life

Ever notice how, ever since you ordered that discount kitty litter online,  you’ve been seeing cat food ads popping up on other unrelated sites you visit? That’s happening because you’re being stalked by marketers. In fact, just reading this post here on The Ethical Nag tells me that you are leaving your digital footprint, right now, at this very moment. That’s the warning from Evan Dashevsky, writing in PC World:

“Your personal information is considered a very hot commodity among people you have never even met.”  

Others, like software entrepreneur Dave Sifry, have called this phenomenon data porn.

Dashevsky adds that whenever we’re on the internet, we leave behind little bits of personal information with every new new step in our digital footprint, including:

  • what sites we visit
  • what online searches we conduct
  • what links we click on

And collecting all that information is big business, he warns. Every time you visit a website – even this one – a ripple of data is sent through the internet, often without your knowledge and without your consent. What’s actually done with your data is variable – from targeting you with specific ad campaigns based on what you’ve shared or purchased, to creating purely recreational charts that have been screen-scraped in true data-hoarder style to map things like Bigfoot vs. space alien sightings in the United States.  Yes, seriously.

The Digital Trends Report 2013, in its chapter called Data Porn: The Rise of Insights-Led Marketing, explains:

“What’s driving these behaviours is inexpensive access to the biggest data set in history: a combination of openly available demographic, psychographic and behavioural data plus the vast number of stories, observations and throwaway lines by billions of social media sharers around the world.”

Pew Research Center’s recent study, Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online, found that 86 percent of surveyed adult internet users in the U.S. have made efforts to obscure their digital footprints. As Techcrunch editor Ingrid Lunden explained, these efforts could include simple measures like clearing cookies in your browser, or something more involved like encrypting your email. But the trend is worrisome to an increasing number of us, as she explains:

“Signs are pointing towards more awareness – and more worry.

“Fifty percent of respondents say they are “worried” about what personal information of theirs is online, and Pew points out that this is a leap from the 33 percent who thought this in 2009.

“Despite that, we are still seeing a lot of strong growth in areas like social networking and e-commerce, two trends that seem to run counter to how people are feeling about their security.”

A good example is Dr. Francine Hardaway, well-known as a serial entrepreneur and blogger for Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Stealthmode. She knows how her own self-tracking tech devices and retail shopping choices can provide endless personal information to marketers who collect such data:

“I wear a Jawbone Up. Every day it counts and collects the hours I sleep, the steps I walk, and, if I bother to enter it, logs all the food I eat with its calories, nutritional value, sodium, and so on.

“But it never tells me what to change, and never tells me how to change. I’ve been wearing one of the leading five fitness monitoring brands for as long as they’ve all existed (Jawbone, FuelBand, Basis, Fitbit, and Pebble) and I never lost or gained an ounce, slept any more, or altered what I ate on the basis of their data – although I did on the basis of other, unrelated and much more useful information.

“I’m sure Jawbone is going to sell my information along with everyone else’s, crunched by some guru to find out whether people my age are still customers for running shoes.”

“Even data collected by retailers is used in re-targeting and other sophisticated techniques to target customers and track them on- and offline. Retailers have my number, and follow me to Facebook all day long. I’ll see ads for that product over and over again for weeks.

Dr. Hardaway also sees data porn as the onslaught of data that has suddenly entered all our lives, but doesn’t help us at all – and may indeed hurt us.

“It may be data, but it’s not actionable information, and if we expect to change behavior, we are nowhere yet. It’s the information that displays on our various quantified-self devices as well as data about us that’s gathered by PRISM, by the health care system, and by advertisers.”

All of it, she claims, can look cool and exciting at first.

“But it can end up being dangerous if used incorrectly. Like real porn.”


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