In an age where everyone has a phone and society is dependent on the internet, we still assume we are in control of our personal information. After a visit to pop-up exhibition The Glass Room, though, it’s clear that the further we take our digital footprint, the less our personal data actually belongs to us.
The Glass Room exhibition, a collaboration between Mozilla and Tactical Tech, is certainly eye-opening. I went along quite happy with how I conduct myself online and fairly confident that personal details were secure. How wrong I was.
No one reads ‘Terms and Conditions’, right? It’s easier to tick the box and download that app or create an account.
But, did you know the torch app on your phone collects location data? Or that when you connect to free wifi, you give permission for your movement to be monitored, even if you can’t connect to the internet?
When a website tells us our data is safe, it probably is. However, it’s the non-personal data that is frequently used to unpick how we use the internet, where we use our phones, and who we communicate with. The more accounts we have, the more personal data is out there.
When you put all that together, it’s possible for someone with access to that data to create an accurate network of our habits and personalities. Much of this information comes from our phones, and the reliance we have on the ‘Big Five’ GAMAT companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft).
The exhibition argues that Google, now ‘Alphabet’, acts as an artificial and machine-learning company. This is due to the information it collects from searches, maps, emails, and the 180 other companies it has invested in, like YouTube.
A short video by OpenDataCity highlighted just how much of our own information can be accessed by looking at the digital footprint of Swiss politician Balthasar Glattli.
It was possible to see who he emailed, when he used the internet, and where he travelled on a daily basis. The data could predict his movements and behaviours.
When you realise that this data is available for most of us, it’s alarming. If you combined everybody’s individual networks across a whole community, anyone with access to this data can see exactly how that community interacts. That’s some seriously powerful information.
Another video explored Data Brokers – organisations who collate and sell information on us from public records, personal information from our social media accounts, and web-browsing history. This information is then used to target advertising and monitor society.
To be honest, I’d prefer not to think about the implications behind this kind of information being sold to the highest bidder. However, the appropriately-named ‘Big Mother’ section of the exhibition – which explores how governments and commercial entities are trying to normalise surveillance – prompted you to think about exactly that.
Maybe the clearest example of commercialising our personal data was a podium highlighting the 23andme company – unsurprisingly owned by Google. They analyse your DNA and tell you information about your health and ancestry, before selling the information if you don’t opt-out.
One podium had eight huge volumes of every password revealed from the 2012 LinkedIn hack. Although it was disconcerting to see my own password printed on a page, I was struck by how many people set simple lowercase words without any numbers or punctuation as their passwords.
So what can we do about the fact that everything we do is monitored?
Can we stop it? Unlikely. Can we limit it? Possibly. Can we take advantage of it? Well, one exhibit showed the money-making potential of simply looking at social media, by allowing sensors and emotion-recognition software to monitor how we react to certain posts. So maybe it’s not that bad?
Before I left, I picked up one of The Glass Room’s Data Detox Kits, which have eight steps to allow me to reclaim my digital life. The steps are:
- Discovery: What do people find when they search for you online?
- Everything in one place: How much do you use Google?
- Being Social: How much information does Facebook have about you?
- Searching and Surfing: What can your browser track when you’re online?
- Connecting: What does your phone create, and how can you reduce that?
- Cleaning up: Are the endless apps on your phone collecting data?
- Who do they think you are?: How would Google profile you, and use that to target advertising?
- Creating a new you: How often will you review what personal data is available?
I can safely say the scaremongering has worked and I’ll be going through a Data Detox myself – as long as I don’t have to agree to any terms and conditions.