A new relationship with data part one
How many times have we found ourselves on a discovery journey, asking ourselves where we came from, where we are and where we are going.
Well, I’ve had my share of existential questions, but this time, I am on a digital discovery.
I am interested to know what is my digital fingerprint, where it is, who’s seen it and how does it travel.
Have you ever received spam email not knowing where it came from? I used to just swipe full right to delete it, or click the trash icon without even thinking.
Thank God for those smart folders right? Well…not really, because nothing has changed, we just hide the emails but not really deal with them.
I’ve also tried to unsubscribe from every newsletter. I managed to reduce my inbox from five plus newsletters a week to zero, now my inbox is pretty empty.
And yes, sometimes I’ve accidentally opened a newsletter and three days later I got new emails from the same company. Yes, companies do track if you opened the email or not, and what you do with it.¹
I understand this is important information to know for businesses. But recently I started feeling like things started to get a little out of control.
Becoming one with technology
So here I am, having bought a Google Pixel phone and deciding to join the whole Google ecosystem, my digital life became more customised. My news was about technology, games, design, and travel. Then, as I was clicking and reading through, my customised reading feed got even more tailored. I was getting news about World of Warcraft, British Airways, TransferWise, and my favourite Netflix shows, to name a few.
My reading selection suddenly turned into advertising, and the same ads were following me around, everywhere I went online. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, etc. It was ok for a while, I discovered a few new interesting tech products, but then those products started following me around.
The targeting was perfect.
At some point, I really became one with technology, using apps for everything, using Google Assistant, Google Home, using my phone to pay, to create, to transfer, to connect, to live.
Later on, I was starting to feel a little ad-overloaded, and whenever I was researching something online, I felt I wasn’t getting the best results. I was constantly feeling that I was seeing what the algorithms selected for me and perhaps I was missing out on other things.
The point of no return
Then one day, someone hacked my Deliveroo account and ordered 150 pounds’ worth of food and drinks.
Luckily, my phone — being an extension of my hand, as Marshall McLuhan would have said² — immediately notified me of a confirmed order and change of address. Within five minutes of the incident, I was able to reach out to Deliveroo, check-in with my bank, close my Deliveroo account, and change my email password, all whilst searching for clothes at Marks & Spencers!
Anyway, they key point to remember is that someone got access to my email and password, logged in to my Deliveroo account and made a purchase without my consent.
I use that email for everything that’s important, i.e. anything that requires my payment details, which nowadays is almost everything we have on our phones, everything we get delivered to our house etc. The idea that some stranger got access to my private information with my email and password freaked me out a bit. Ok maybe a lot.
In a way, I felt as if I had the door of my house closed but unlocked, making it easy for intruders to break in.
I went on to Have I Been Pawned and found several lists of my email address being copied with my password. I also found that my Spotify details were on one of the lists and probably someone else was enjoying my premium subscription somewhere else in the world. The next day I found myself a 4/5 stars, 9/10 for reviews and geek-approved password manager and changed every single password for every single account I have.
It also slightly broke my trust with Deliveroo and Spotify, and it made me question how easily I save my details everywhere, allowing location services, and accepting cookies everywhere. Those silly cookies were driving me crazy as well. I mean before the GDPR I had no control about those tasteless cookies. And now, with the GDPR it feels worse because sometimes I don’t even have the option to NOT accept the cookies. I mean it is like your fingers are tied, literally!
This is when you realise ignorance is bliss.
This event triggered a chain of events in my life. I suddenly became very interested in how this happened and how easily it is for someone to get access to real information about me.
I love technology and how it improves our lives. I am a huge advocate for sustainable technology and digital tools that help us give back to our environment and our community. And much like we have a carbon footprint in the world, we have a digital footprint that leaves a mark of ourselves in the digital world.
This really made me think about my digital self and the trace I’ve left behind.
I started researching about alternative digital platforms, data privacy and open source tools. I realised that looking for these kinds of digital tool is like looking for “sugar-free” items in the supermarket. Sometimes the “sugar-free” label is there, but when you look at the ingredients you find there’s some type of sugar in it 🤷🏽♀️.
Among these things, I found Brave, a web browser created by Brendan Eich, creator of Java Script and co-founder of Mozilla. This browser is focused on privacy and it’s a platform to virtually provide equality between users, publishers and advertisers. They’ve introduced a business model where users get rewarded with digital tokens for viewing advertisements. They call it the Basic Attention Token³.
Similarly to Brave, a company called Hu-manity.co, supports the decentralisation of data and suggests that by claiming our data as our property we can generate passive income and profit from it when we opt-in to be targeted⁴.
If they are going to use my data to make money, shouldn’t I be getting some of that? 🤔
So I went on researching more about data privacy, how it is managed, sold, and accessed. Here are the things that shocked me the most:
- The existence of data brokers, companies that have a huge database of probably everyone online.
- How easy it is to find real life information about you by going through your search history.
- Google and Facebook really, really, really know everything about you.
- Web cookies can trigger price rises if you are a returning visitor to a flight broker website.⁵
Accessing the new Internet
With this in mind, I’ve decided to make some changes in my digital life, more specifically, how I access the Internet. I want to see how this impacts my online experience and perhaps my offline experience too.
I now use Brave as my main browser and I changed my search engine to StartPage. I was going to try the popular DuckDuckGo search engine, but I found out that the founder of DDG, Gabriel Weinberg previously launched a social media platform called Name Database which was later acquired by Classmates.com and it was found to have some controversial legal issues about data. Also DDG is based in the US, whereas StartPage is based in the Netherlands, a much prefer regulated jurisdiction.
Looking for humane digital companies, really makes you dig into your own values and the values of the tool you are about to support, who created it and why they created it.
I now read every single Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policies before I sign up to something. I also delete my browsing history and cookies every other week.
A new relationship with data
Don’t get me wrong, there are certain aspects of data mining and algorithms that I like, for example I care that Google Maps gives me accurate information about road closures and walking times. I like to know how active I am through the day with my steps’ counter, my travel history and my productivity rate by tracking the software I use on my computer and phone.
For me, there are two types of data structure. The informational algorithm that allows me to know what’s happening in the world and adapts to help me live a more efficient life. And the intrusive algorithm that follows me around after mining my information and putting it into a category that is sold everywhere without my consent, which allows publishers to target their advertisements at me.
More and more, I feel very passionate about the use of data, ethical algorithms, ethical design, open source platforms, and software that advocates for privacy, while being transparent with their policies.
I want to know how this impacts my life both online and offline and if it has a meaningful change at all.
To be continued…
 Fulcrum Tech, The Most Important Data Needed to Drive Email Subscriber Engagement and Conversions
 Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media, (1994)
 Brave Software, Basic Attention Token (BAT), (March 13, 2018) https://basicattentiontoken.org/BasicAttentionTokenWhitePaper-4.pdf
 Hu-manity, Your Personal Data Can Create a Passive Income Stream, (2019)
 Hannah Fry, Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine, (Great Britain, Doubleday, 2018), 29–56