Sam Rechner

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21st century consumers live in a time of technology-driven change and disruption. Over the last decade, our fundamental aspects of life-- how we work, play, shop, and learn-- have been completely transformed. Not only have industries been reinvented, but new ways to treat diseases have emerged, and the way we communicate has been redefined. Today, political, social, and economic change occurs at unprecedented rates due to technology. As technology has continued to expand, the data behind it has become increasingly valuable. Although many people consider data collection to be “the new gold rush”, it carries an even greater political and economic weight. While gold is a finite resource, data is infinitely reusable, storable, useful, and transferable. Billions of people constantly share data as part of social interactions and the consumption of business or public services. The use of smartphones and the internet have made data abundant and useful for many institutions. However, the rules around how data is stored, exchanged, processed and used by public and private organizations are still being written. For users, a lack of regulation has created unanswerable questions as to who uses our personal data, how often, and for what reasons.

Some people have no issue with this, but I do. Limiting the amount of information I publicly share is important to me. I typically set my social media accounts to private, or chose usernames that do not reveal my name to prevent my interests and activity from being viewable by anyone. Regardless of whether I do this or not, my digital footprint can still be seen by platform providers and search engines. My search history, interests, previous purchases, etc. is all information that I cannot hide. Many people do not mind that search engines use this data for targeted ads and more relevant search results. However, most people would also consider google to be a search engine-- not an ad agency.

Google’s business plan does not worry me as much as their algorithms do. Tech companies utilize our data to provide content we enjoy, but they also analyze it to add features known to prolong our usage. Although we benefit from data being used to improve content, we also grow more susceptible to something we cannot control. Not only are most algorithms biased, but their organization and analysis of personal data allows search engines to understand my digital embeddedness better than I ever could. Understanding this has led me to question the concept of online privacy and its ethical implications. Are we the consumers of tech products, or are we just the product tech companies consume?

While researching my digital footprint, I found the latter to be true. The capabilities of data collection allow my digital footprint to accurately represent my actions online. However, my digital footprint is an inaccurate reflection of who I am because of its inability to capture my life and experiences away from the screen.

My Digital Footprint

I started my digital footprint exploration with a simple Google search of my name. The search results were underwhelming, which to me was a good thing. Besides my instagram and LinkedIn, most other links involved a Sam Rechner from Australia. I also searched my name on Twitter, a platform I use frequently, but the only results that appeared were previous tweets of mine. The information I found about myself was abysmal, but nevertheless, did reflect my online presence. Unsatisfied with my findings, I shifted my focus from finding information on myself to comprehending how my data is processed by platforms.

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Terms of Use & Machine Learning

It all begins when a user accepts a platform’s terms of use, which are often lengthy and dull. I chose to review Instagram’s terms of use because it is arguably the most popular platform among internet users my age. Its parent company, Facebook, is the last major platform providing targeted-ads after Google became the latest to say it won’t develop new ways to track individual users last week. Facebook is also in the midst of an antitrust lawsuit and reviewing the terms seemed relevant. I was disappointed but not shocked to read that Instagram “may combine a user’s information with other information and share de-identified and aggregated information with third-parties” ( Instagram additionally “states that a person's distinct mobile device identifier and other device-specific information may be collected and stored”, which can be used by Instagram or third party affiliates to track and target content and advertising to users”. Including this tid-bit allows Instagram to collect the geolocation, biometric, health, behavioral, and sensitive data of all users. It also hypothetically means that Instagram can track your location in relation to your followers to organize them according to in-person interactions, among other things. Their terms of use were extremely unclear-- and while reading it I began to realize that the vagueness was purposeful. Presenting an indistinct terms of use not only allows the company to bend policy, but also to broaden their data capabilities. I was especially concerned with Instagram’s statement that “changes to the policies are effective immediately and continued use of the product indicates consent”, which essentially allows the platform to change policy without immediately informing users. When combining all of these factors, I began to understand the unethical depth to which data can be collected.

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I also looked more into how is my data reflects my content and found machine learning to be the largest culprit. A content curator and targeted advertiser, machine learning is a product of AI and allows computers to develop better algorithms based on relevant user data. ML enables computers to recognize common patterns in content while understanding specific nuances and context (GettingGrowth). Twitter Moments, TikTok’s “For You” page, and Instagram shopping all utilize it to personalize users’ interfaces, so I decided to explore mine in relation to my interests. The results were surprisingly accurate; the algorithms seemingly did their jobs. Regardless, ML still failed at curating content that reflected my actions or mood away from the screen-- and I honestly hope that to always be the case. The ethical implications and subsequent impact on humanity would be insurmountable.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, I believe that the capabilities of data collection allow my digital footprint to accurately represent my online embeddedness. However, my online presence is an inaccurate reflection of who I am because of its inability to capture my real-world thoughts and actions. Most of the things I do and say on the internet are not reflective of my conduct in real life. Anyone who searches my name online will fail at accurately understanding who I am. ML and big data algorithms can study my digital footprint, but they cannot predict how I feel or what step I will take next. The power of big data is infinite and its applications are endless, yet my digital footprint is strictly my online presence and not my true self.