Should you care about your Data and Digital Footprint?

James Hamann
5 min readAug 8, 2017

Data. It’s what drives applications, it’s what businesses use to make decisions and it’s all generated by you. Think about it, if the app is free you’re the product. Facebook, Google, Snapchat, all these giant tech companies have free services, but how do they actually make money? You. You’re the product they’re serving up to companies. So, shouldn’t you care about your data and where it goes?

What Data do they Hold?

Well, everything you make public and everything you keep private. Google even build a profile based on your searches, age and gender. You can check your own one out if you search “Ad Settings” in Google and follow their support page. It’s kind of creepy because most people wouldn’t even realise this is being actively collected to create an advertising profile about you.

Facebook also have tons and tons of data on everyone. If you run a business and want to put out an ad, you can drill down into so many different demographics, it becomes clear how much data they store about each user, even if that user doesn’t opt to make it “public”. All of this data is so, so valuable. Not only because of the sheer quantity of it, but because of the quality of it as well. Having the ability to analyse trends based on sex, income, sexual orientation, age, job title is hugely valuable to companies when marketing their products. It’s also hugely valuable to governments looking to engage effectively with swing voter demographics.

Snapchat only recently launched their new feature which allows people to view themselves as well as their friends on a map, if they opt in. The other option is “Ghost Mode”, which keeps you invisible but allows you to see everyone else. Besides essentially creating a stalking function, it allows a user to get a different perspective of a place/event. The thing is every time the app opens your location is logged, regardless of whether you’re in Ghost Mode or not. So without doing much, Snapchat can quite easily build a profile of me, where I travel, my favourite snap locations/type of snaps and sell this on to advertising/marketing agencies. I snap a fair bit and somewhat accept it, reluctantly, but it does make you wonder what exactly is done with that location data.

Fitbit, the fitness company, collect so much data as well. They can quite quickly build profiles of users based on age, fitness level, the amount they exercise, what types of exercise, at which point users “give up”, pretty much anything logged on your tracker. This is so valuable to other marketing or fitness companies looking to push their products into the market.

Data is good, though

Tesla, for example, collect so much data based on the speed, rate of acceleration to the amount of pressure applied when a human brakes, all of these things can be used to further research and development into driverless cars. This data is what helps craft algorithms to optimise performance and to develop better, smarter driverless cars.

Netflix bases most of their business decisions on data, looking at trends of what users watch and then crafting assumptions with this data about what they think users want. This can be positive because, theoretically, we’d get more TV that we actually like and, so far, Netflix has a pretty awesome list of originals that just keeps growing. I remember someone mentioning at the AWS Summit that around 70% of shows that are watched on the platform are through recommendations. These recommendations are obviously generated from tons of user data to show you what you might like based on what other people, like you, enjoy watching.

Data is useful and can provide the end user with a better, overall experience. It’s vital to many businesses and helps further research and development to create better products for us, the consumer.

Raising Awareness of Data Collection

One of the things that needs to change, and is starting to, is raising some awareness around the topic. The UK is currently looking at introducing the Data Protection Law, basically the “Right to be forgotten”, which is, in theory, a great idea. Thing is, I don’t think anyone actually knows the true amount these social media giants hold on us. Ever shared an advert, meme, commented on something funny — that’s tracked and linked to build a profile about you, which is then sold on to advertises/business who try to sway you with their products. Even when I share this article on Twitter or Facebook, that’ll be tracked, linked and stored. People should be aware of how their information is being passed around, it’s a multi-billion dollar economy and is only growing year on year. Especially with the advances in AI and Machine Learning, data is getting bigger and better, so people should be aware of what’s being done with it, how it’s being used and at least have the option to reduce the amount of data being held on them.

Understand before jumping to conclusions

The choice is obviously yours whether you care or not, I don’t care what side of the argument you sit on. The point I’m trying to make here is that you should at least understand the context and information behind everything, before jumping to say it’s “too invasive” or that you simply “don’t care”. Data is only getting more important and, in my opinion, will form a large part of the economy in the future. So we should start now in understanding how it’s used and what exactly is being stored and gathered on each one of us.

We’re in a unique position in that we’ll be one of the first generations to have a digital data footprint from a relatively young age to whenever we die. That’s so valuable, imagine the analysis that can be done on such a large volume of data to learn more about social trends, economic trends, pretty much anything.

Personally, I think data is great, it helps us make better decisions and drives businesses forward. It just needs greater transparency.

Thanks for reading, hit 💚 if you like what you read and be sure to follow to keep up to date with future posts.