If you browse the internet or use ‘smart’ devices, there’s a good chance you already have a digital identity. In the past, identity was verified in-person and exchanges of information were usually forgotten or never collected in the first place. This system was far from perfect and inconvenient for everyone involved but the dangers were limited. Information about your activity, finances, and private conversations could only be accessed by those around you with your permission. But everything changed…for better and for worse.
We’re about to open the door for you to peek into the hidden world of how your digital identity is built up, sold and subject to exploitation by ‘big tech’ companies and criminals.
Then discover how to take back control of your data and privacy without reverting to the stone age.
What is your digital identity?
Identity is the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person. In less flattering terms, you’re a unique set of data points. Similarly, a digital identity can be formed with the collection of online data points about you to help verify your identity from the other billions of people using the internet. On a basic level, this covers login credentials such as email and password that help link you to a user account for an app or website. But these login details are only an entry point to access your real digital identity, which is owned by the platform you sign up to.
This consists of a profile about you and your preferences. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. In fact, sophisticated social media networks like Facebook store alarming amounts of data – up to 52,000 data points for each person. This figure is astronomical because Facebook and other big tech companies store traceable records of your history such as login locations and shopping patterns.
Collection of data isn’t always warranted. YouTube faces a potential £2.5 billion legal battle over an alleged breach of children’s privacy by collecting data without parental consent – again.
How is your digital identity used?
When you speak into your phone or Alexa, browse online, or communicate with others on devices, that information is stored in someone’s server. It’s unclear how all of it is used but here’s what we do know.
Selling access to data
Customer data is big business. In many cases, data can be used to benefit consumers. For example, artificial intelligence uses data to continuously improve user experience. Data tells a story and informs companies of what customers enjoy, why they enjoy it, and what they don’t like. This helps tools like Google Search to feed you accurate results and YouTube to offer desirable video recommendations.
But have you ever wondered why social media platforms and other online tools are free?
It’s simple. Ownership of your digital identity makes them serious money. Your data is valuable to every company looking to sell you something. First, you pay with data. Then you pay with money. Forbes explains that ‘social media platforms often generate the majority of their revenue through selling hyper-targeted advertising based on algorithmically mining every second of their unwilling and unwitting users’ lives.’
These companies aren’t exactly shipping user data off in a ZIP file. Those are ‘privacy deathstars’ called data brokers. Instead, social media and others mostly sell access to your data. There has been an attempt from platforms like Facebook to provide anonymity to users by using IP addresses as identifiers but data privacy experts will tell you there are ways to match this to actual people. Cyber-criminals lurk around every corner looking to steal your data and sell it on the ‘dark web’.
Sharing your data
Sharing your data with third parties is just as common. When you create an account on a website, there are sometimes options to sign up using Google or Facebook. Thousands of the data points personal to you are potentially being spread. Not every website is equal and the security risks are not always worth the extra convenience.
The British government spying agency, GCHQ, works in cooperation with the NSA, its U.S counterpart. The NSA spying program violated the privacy of millions of Americans and their activity was recently ruled illegal and ineffective by the courts. Facebook was identified as being a company that gave the spy agencies access to their servers. With a database of over 2.7 billion users (excluding Instagram and Whatsapp users), this places the digital identity of most UK citizens at risk of a breach in human rights. Your data is subject to misuse by both UK and foreign governments and, without protection, we may be normalising a Big Brother system through the use of large, private corporations.
The dangers of NOT protecting your digital identity include (but are not limited to):
- Government surveillance threats
- Identity fraud and cybercrime
- Data being shared and sold to third parties
- Traceable records of you and your history (useful for scammers and predators)
- Data mining without your authorization
- Misuse of your data for political, financial, or social manipulation
The future of protecting your identity
Identity and personal data will be vital aspects of living in the future…The next data giants will create new types of services designed to help people, says will.i.am, a musician and entrepreneur.
In truth, there is no going back. Artificial intelligence is well on track to revolutionise many industries. The integration of digital in society grows by the day to make our lives easier. But the profitability of companies using your data for advertising puts up barriers for consumers. As a result, there hasn’t been much incentive to move forward in protecting your digital identity. The key moving forward is to invest in developing new technology that democratises data and gives back control to the consumer. We believe it’s a small price worth paying to own your digital identity and contributes towards a future where the option of privacy is the norm.