Watch your (digital) step!

Maybe you cover your PIN number when you enter it into an ATM. Perhaps you change and strengthen your computer passwords often. You may even refrain from posting personal information on your favorite social networking site. But in today’s wired world, no matter what precautions we take, everyone leaves digital footprints behind.

“As we surf the web, as we buy things with debit or credit cards, as we use digital media, whether a phone or music player or a GPS, everything we do in this digital society is recorded in some way. That is your digital footprint,” says Jesse Hirsh, a technology journalist and Internet expert from Toronto, Canada.  

“There are thousands of systems that track us for everything from consumer purposes, to the interests of our employer, to general tracking that covers society at large,” explains Hirsh.  

FootprintOften, these records are ignored but, more often, they are stored for future use on private databases – databases to which we often have zero access and of which we have zero knowledge. “At this point, because all these databases are disconnected from each other, the risk is low,” he says. “It is inevitable, however, that they will be interconnected and when that happens, data we assume was lost will reappear and be easily accessible.”  

Out of control
The primary danger posed by our digital footprints is the loss of control over our own information.  

“What is fundamental to information privacy is that the individual has some semblance of control over their own information. But we know that control is fast fading,” says Dr. Ann Cavoukian, the Privacy Commissioner for the province of Ontario, Canada. “The concept of informational self-determination – whereby the individual is the one who determines the fate of their personal information – may become a thing of the past with the advent of web 2.0.”  

Loss of control over our own information poses a serious threat to our privacy. One of the most obvious hazards is identity fraud. “Identity theft via the Internet is now the fastest growing form of consumer fraud,” says Dr. Cavoukian.  

The consequences can be less dire, but still troubling, such as opening ourselves up to the scrutiny of marketers.  

“Since we don’t control our digital footprints, those who control them have the potential to control us,” warns Hirsch. “They can do this by preying upon our needs and desires deduced from our purchasing habits and other data elements that, alone, are meaningless, but combined offer a view of our past, present and maybe even our future.”  

Dr. Cavoukian teaches people of all ages to monitor their digital footprints by considering the consequences of having certain people have access to their information online. “We call this technique, beware of the five P’s,” she explains. For young children, it’s Predators. For older teens, it’s Parents. For young adults in college and university, they should consider Professors.  When they enter the job market, it is Prospective employers.  

“Teachers regularly have access to students’ profiles and that can have damning consequences,” warns Dr. Cavoukian. Adults, especially in this economy, should worry about exposing their information to Prospective employers (“Seventy-seven per cent of all employers check out Facebook profiles). And the final P is the Police.”

Privacy by Design
So, if we cannot erase our digital footprints and we cannot avoid leaving them behind, what can be done to protect ourselves and prevent our information from falling into the wrong hands? Dr. Cavoukian’s office developed the idea of “Privacy by Design,” a process that calls for privacy controls to be embedded directly into technology – rather than leaving privacy controls in the hands of regulators, after the fact.  

“I’m a regulator myself,” she says, laughing. “So I know that can be hit and miss.”

Dr. Cavoukian points to Secure Visual Object Coding, a new encryption technology for surveillance cameras developed at the University of Toronto by Engineering Professor Kostas Plataniotis and Doctoral student Karl Martin. The technology enables cameras to only show the blurred outlines of people, without any identifying features.  

“In this way, you can still engage in surveillance, but no digital footprint is left behind,” explains Dr. Cavoukian. “That’s built into the fabric of this technology.” Should law enforcement officials need to later view the footage, two signatures by designated authorities are required to gain access to the encryption key, which would then allow the people captured on the videos to be viewed.  

Dr. Cavoukian also encourages people to practice data minimization – putting only the minimum amount of information possible out into cyberspace. “That’s what I practice myself,” she says. “I never send a message or an email without asking myself: ‘Could this appear on the front page of a major newspaper? If this information were to be made public, would it have any harmful consequences?’”  

If the answer is yes, think before you send your information out into cyberspace.


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