The average citizen has numerous digital identities, each of which consists of different but overlapping sets of properties. This is how different companies manage their profiles about you. That is useful for them, because they can target and tailor their advertisements specifically towards what they think will interest you. We seem to have already accepted—at least passively—the advertising model that has evolved online. The services that we purchase are often free, so we can endure a few advertisements and recommendations in the margins, right? And sometimes you are just looking for that perfect supersonic stroller. There are only two problems: firstly, these services are not really free, because we ‘pay’ with our personal data. Secondly, we know too little about the consequences that all those digitized data streams can have on our lives (like going beyond advertising in an attempt to shape our political beliefs or manipulate our moods). We’ve already been rattled by how our own data is used to influence us, and there is no way to be certain about how this will be done in the future.
How does a digital identity come about?
There are two ways in which personal data can end up in a profile: actively and passively. Actively fill in your data yourself; these are mainly things that businesses need to be able to carry out a transaction. It is customary for a website to ask you for your name, address, and place of residence. And it is not surprising that FootLocker.com knows: wears a size . How else can they send you the right shoes? At the same time, you may wonder why FootLocker needs to know where you live: that information is actually only relevant to the postal company that is going to ship those new loafers.
The passive creation of your digital identity is all the more worrying, because this data is often not consciously shared with companies, by us. You click on links, order a book, put photos online, or send apps to your friends, but none of that you do, hopefully, with the aim of supplementing the data profiles that companies have about you. Yet powerful algorithms divert all sorts of information from your online behavior. Spotify knows your favorite music genre, Netflix knows that you watch Desperate Housewives until late at night, Google Maps knows where you are on holiday, UberEats knows how often you eat burgers, and whether you want to have cheese and bacon on it.
The internet is no longer just in our computers and telephones, but in the everyday items that are all around us. The Internet of Things makes life easier on many fronts. Think of the car that, upon (or even before) breaking down, can remotely explain to the garage what is going on. But the same car also records your driving behavior: What is your average speed? How quickly do you accelerate? How often do you have to kick the brakes a little too abruptly? These data also come in one of the many data profiles that are about you.
Companies sell these profiles to each other. This way your bank can learn from Zillow that you are on the hunt for a new house, offering you a mortgage. Ah, you might think, let them. But your health insurance could also be very interested in your burger consumption, or your binge watching behavior, because an unhealthy lifestyle may be a reason to add a little extra to that additional premium. And what should the premium for you car insurance be? Let’s have a look at your driving behavior!
These are just a few examples of how this data collection frenzy can cause unintentional or undesirable effects. It is not hard to imagine that a lot of negative things could happen with all that linked and eternally stored information about us. We already know what is technically possible; take the social credit system in China, or the NSA’s domestic and global data gathering operation as revealed by Edward Snowden.
In addition, passive data collection often involves personal data that relate to, among other things, race, religion, political color, and health. For example, if you wrote a couple of passionate Brexit tweets last year, Twitter might know that tends to look a little bit politically .
Banks have it even easier. Based on your payment behavior and other activity on your account, your bank has information about your work, study, friends, interests, leisure activities, whether you have children, a house for sale, a car, how often you exercise, whether you were in the bar yesterday, and whether or not you smoke. They don’t even have to analyze your Brexit tweets: your bank can see which party you support when you make a donation.