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So many Big Brothers… I

A (partial) map of the data I am generating every day (brown dots) and the information that 3rd parties can derive from them (in red). In blue the emerging patterns correlating my data to the ones generated by other people.

In his Nineteen eighty-four novel Orwell imagined a Big Brother that, using telescreens, was able to see and control people. He wrote it in 1949 and imagined that people were constantly reminded of this by the warnings appearing everywhere “Big Brother is watching you”.

Today I feel we are well past Orwell’s imagination in terms of Big Brothers watching us, the only part that is missing being signs reminding us that indeed, Big Brother(s) are watching us (although more recently we are made -a little- aware of them using our data by the request to acknowledge the use of cookies and the fact that some data are harvested out of our interactions with them). Notice the plural, Brothers. There are so many of them watching us, and of course they (claim to) do that for our wellbeing!

As I was preparing for the little talk I gave yesterday in the day long webinar in which the various contributors to the book “Aftershocks and Opportunities: Scenarios for a post pandemic future” presented their ideas I spent some time brooding over the personal data that I am sharing everyday with third parties. The reason for this was the fact that my talk was about Personal Digital Twins and the strongest objection, concern, on PDT is about privacy. That came up, as I expected, also in the follow up questions.

To help me classify and organise the data I am willingly and unwillingly sharing I used Mindy, an app that lets you create connected thoughts, to draw the ecosystem of data, calling it “Myself in Data”  and the more I jotted down the more came to mind. I started by identifying areas where I was generating data, like:

  • Institutions
  • Money
  • Shopping
  • Apps
  • Entertainment
  • Photography
  • Social Media
  • Travel
  • Communications

There may be more, of course, but I felt this was a good starting point. For each I identified sub-categories and for each I tried to list the data that I am passing on to them. In this series of posts I would like to share my views on them and solicit you to think about the data you are sharing and comments to extend, modify my list. I am pretty sure I am forgetting quite a bit.

Institutions

Here I considered Government, Municipality, Company employing me, Healthcare System, Building Administrator, Insurance. You can of course add more to the list but what I had identified begins to give an idea of the structural relations I am “forced” to establish as part of my life as a citizen. Of course whilst you are usually interfacing with just one Government (2), one Municipality(4) one Company(7) you are employed by, you may have several houses each administered by a different administrators(4), you might enrol in several healthcare systems (2), and have a multiplicity of insurances (2). I added in parentheses the number of entities I am currently relating to.
Each of these entities usually have the data on who I am, where I live, a sort of social security number and how I can be contacted. In addition each has specific data relevant to the kind of relation is established and a record of all the interactions I had with them (data, time, reason, outcome, plus the digital copy of each interaction). As an example the Municipality has to know where is my main residence, how many people live with me, the value of the assets in the municipality, the services I am using (when, how, from where) how much I have to pay for these services and how I pay for them, if I got any fines… and so on. Each insurance company knows about the insured assets, if I ever had claimed for insurance, the type of claim and the third parties that were involved in those claims, my bank account coordinates, the credit card I use to pay for the insurance and so on…

I take for granted that all these data are needed by these institutions and the only objection I have about that is usually “why in heavens do they ask for this information since they already know the answer to what they are asking?!”. I mention this to highlight the fact I am aware they have these data about me, to the point I get upset when I am asked all over again of some of them through an interaction.

Healthcare data may be considered as a class of their own. My doctor knows quite a bit about me but most likely she knows less than what would be needed to take “informed” decision. She basically relies on what I am telling her, and sometime I am forgetful, other times I am not aware that a certain information would lead to a different prescription. So whilst my feeling is that in the other “institutional” areas I am providing more data than needed, in healthcare I am pretty sure there is a gap between available data and shared data. Take as an example the prescriptions I get from my eye doctor and from my general practitioner. They do not know what the other prescribed to me, they operate in separate digital silos. Take the data generated every day by my Apple watch (on physical activities, heart beats…), by my scale, by my blood pressure measurements … They become aware of them only when I feel something is wrong and I report them. The drugstore knows about the drugs I am taking, they know the specific “brand” but my doctors are not aware of the “brand” I am actually swallowing… And yet, in principle all these data should be accrued by my “digital twin” and be shared, and analysed, as needed.

Money

Here I considered my Banks(2), my Credit Cards(4),  my Financial Advisor/Broker(1), my pension “providers” and more recently on-line payment services (PayPal, Apple Card, Satispay…). Each of them has most of the personal data I share with the Institutions (social security number, where I live, how I can be contacted…) plus a knowledge on some of my assets that goes beyond what Institutions know about me. In addition they know what I spend, when I spend, where and on what I spend, how much I receive, from whom, when (hence also my employment). Out of these data they can create spending patterns, identify my preferences and my mood change over time, my penchant for taking risk,… They may also become aware of what I buy, when and where and derive information on what I like, what my priorities are and even with whom I share my assets.
Based on this emerging analytics they can offer me (or press me for) new services, and indeed this is often the case!
They can also cross check my spending habits with those of people in my area, or with those shopping at a specific mall. They can analyse the effect of some advertisment campaign on my shopping decisions and on the ones of the community I am part of.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Roberto,

    very valid points! Already today, Cognitive Hackers, use algorithms to collect information about potential victims. Important preparation for tailor-made phishing emails or social engineering-calls. The more transparent the individual, the more vulnerable it is to manipulation. Due to this, AI Ethics and Data Privacy is imperative, also as base for the coming nudging technologies.