How Much Do They Know About Me In The 'Cloud'?

Feb 27, 2012
Originally published on February 27, 2012 10:21 am

What do Google's computers and Facebook's, and Amazon's, and Verizon's, and all the other Internet servers know about me?

They know a lot, says Mark Rigely of San Francisco. His strangely beautiful video shows how emails, ISP data, weblogs and voice data are being used to paint our portraits, and how, with time, those portraits become dense with detail, pattern and personality.

It's almost like there's an image of us accumulating in that Cloud that will become an ever more vivid copy, with information we wouldn't tell our best friends, our family or our spouse. But the Cloud knows.

"The average user will have 736 pieces of this personal information collected every day," Rigeley says. What a specific number! I don't know enough about information technology, but I'm trying to think: Is that phone numbers dialed? How long we talked? Key words? E-mail sent? Bills paid? Sites visited? How long I stayed? Tolls I paid? Subway rides taken? Destinations? Entry points? Groceries purchased? Prescriptions filled? Clicks I clicked? What else? Seven hundred and thirty six is a hard number for my imagination to conjure. And that's just one day.

Rigely is a graphic designer, based in San Francisco. He says that "by visualizing the processes that underlie our interactions, we can trace what happens to the information we feed to the network."

He does it very well. But when he shows me what's happening, I feel so exposed.

Last week I wrote about The Right To Forget, a legal doctrine which may soon become law across Europe. It says that embarrassing pictures, unguarded comments and telltale transactions should not live forever on Internet servers; that if you want to, you should have the right to demand that Google or Facebook "forget" that information, make it go away.

I thought such a law would be hard to design, but valuable. Rigely's video only makes the privacy argument stronger. What he's describing is ordinary data, nothing specifically naughty or embarrassing. But if you collect enough of it, as Michael says, "Over time, this information amounts to the user's digital identity." And who owns that virtual you? Not you.

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