Digital breadcrumbs: the data trail we leave behind us

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Once upon a time, in the land of Great Britain, Amanda woke up to the sun shining on a bright Monday morning. Before she got out of bed, she opened the BBC weather app on her phone to check the weather for the day ahead. She had started leaving her trail of digital breadcrumbs…….

She took a shower, made some breakfast, brushed her teeth and left the house. Amanda used Facebook to send a message to her friend telling him she was almost at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, United Kingdom.

Her friend replied: “No you’re not! Your message location says you’re still at home!”

Oops. Amanda was busted!

She tapped her Oyster Card at the Underground Station and read the news on The Guardian app using the Wifi available underground.

Arriving at Russell Square Station, she bought coffee at a cafe using her contactless card and made her way to SOAS for her first lecture of the day.

Amanda was blissfully unaware that her morning schedule had created a trail of “Digital Breadcrumbs.” This means, she can be traced and tracked through the apps she accessed and the technology she used. But what does that really mean? Who has access to this information? And can it be used against us?

Are we all blissfully unaware like Amanda? And should we be worried?

Welcome to Digital Breadcrumbs by George Philip, Jennifer Anne Lazo, Rooham Jamali and Rudy Al Jaroodi. Our podcast explores the digital trails or digital footprints we create in our daily lives.

The majority of applications we use require our location information. We willingly tag ourselves in specific locations through social media platforms, and freely use contactless cards and debit cards, which give retailers, banks and various other organisations information about our daily movements. We are constantly monitored on CCTV and everything we research online is data being collected or stored. In this episode, we’ll be talking to lecturers and students to discover the real cost of our digital footsteps.

So first of all, what is a digital trail? We interviewed Dr. Elisa Oreglia, a lecturer in Global Digital Cultures at SOAS, to find out more about our digital footprints.

Dr. Elisa Oreglia: A “digital trail” is a trace you leave behind you. It’s almost like Breadcrumbs. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally when you use a mobile phone; but also when you use a computer, or when you use really any kind of technology that has a chip in it.

Basically, when you have a phone, you have a series of censors and you have this constant background communication between the phone and the cell towers, but also if its connected online between the phone and the internet so there are all these apps that are getting information about your phone, about your environment.

Narrator: Dr. Oreglia tells us that all this communication is sent elsewhere, it doesn’t just stay on your phone. And it’s constant. It accumulates over time. But where is it being stored? According to Dr. Oreglia, it is going to several different places. The signal on your mobile phone tells your mobile phone network where you are.

EA: But then you have (you know) your GPS, that might be signals that go through a satellite, so it’s a system to position your phone.

Narrator: She goes on to tell us about how information in your apps is stored locally and via the internet to the app’s creators. The information can be dispersed through Wifi, or through your phone’s operator. Basically, there are a lot of apps, a lot of background processes and often, we don’t know exactly what they’re doing.

We then proceeded to ask Dr. Oreglia about what happens to data we have researched.

EA: When you do a search on google, that information goes through Google Servers. First of all it has to travel to a variety of internet service providers and then it gets stored into Google Servers. And they can really be anywhere in the world. Google has several data centres scattered around the world. So, you are not really sure of where they will be. It’s not like, if you are doing a search in the UK, the data will necessarily be kept in the Google Servers in the UK.

Narrator: Dr. Oreglia then spoke about legislation processes and laws that may protect individuals from digital privacy breaching in the UK.

EA: So, in the UK, there is a data protection law that was approved in 1998 and it established a framework around what kind of access you can get to your data. What kind of access companies as well as public organisations can keep about you, and so forth. So, there is the UK government website about the Data Protection Act, that has some very useful information just for regular users. It lays out in a very clear manner the way that you can ask an organisation or a company for what kind of information they have about you. And these companies and organisations are actually required to answer you.

Narrator: As a part of our research we wanted to find out if any of the students or others at SOAS had any idea about what data they are sharing and where it might be going. So we asked them, and we got some interesting results.

SOAS Vox Pop:

1) No, it’s something I don’t really think about.

2) Every message sent on my phone. Every message on Facebook and every email I send out, these are in fact trails and whenever I delete them, they still can be found.

3) Emails, obviously.

4) It’s the presence you are leaving on the internet.

Narrator: We spoke to some individuals who had a good grasp of what Digital Trails are and whether or not they were creating them. Some were less sure about it, while some admitted to never having thought about it.

SOAS Vox Pop:

1) If you’re checkin in on Facebook, or if you’re tagged in a location.

2) I use internet browsers, like Google and like all the others, they record that.

Narrator: The findings from our interviews made us realise that a lot of people mentioned Facebook or Google Maps as a form of Digital Trail they were creating. But most, like Amanda, were pretty unaware of the extent of their Digital Trails extending to their daily use of contactless cards and the majority of applications on their phones.

SOAS Vox Pop:

1) I don’t know. I was thinking about Digital Trailers. Digital Footprints. Not something that is spoken about very often.

2) Yeah, but I frequently try to get rid of these cookies, and browsing history and these kinds of stuff, but still, I guess there (are) still something left.

3) Whatever website you go on, there is a register of it somewhere. So, everyone has a Digital Trail.

Narrator: We found out that most them had turned the Global Positioning System, more commonly known as GPS, off on their phones.

SOAS Vox Pop:

1) I only turn them on when I am using apps that need to find my location.

2) No, it’s off. I think

3) No, I don’t normally have it on.

4) Now, yes, because I used Citymapper to get to this location.

Narrator: Most of them said that they would only turn it on specifically for directions using Google Maps or web mapping app. But this was mainly to save battery on their phone. Not out of concern that their location may be visible.

But were not just being tracked on our phones, we can be traced in other ways as well. Like Closed Circuit Television or CCTV.

Narrator: How many times do you think you’ve appeared on (a) CCTV Camera in London?

SOAS Vox Pop:

1) Doesn’t it happen all the time? I mean, there are thousands of CCTV Cameras, right?

2) No idea.

3) I guess apparently everyday, lots of times.

4) I don’t know. Lots, I guess?

5) Probably a million times.

Narrator: Here’s some food for thought. In 2013, a study conducted by the British Security Industry Authority estimated that there are up to 5.9 million closed circuit television cameras in the UK. This means that there is 1 CCTV camera for every 11 people in the United Kingdom. We asked people how that made them feel.

SOAS Vox Pop:

1) Like I’m being watched.

2) Well, maybe it’s not really a nice feeling. But, I think this could increase the security of London in general

3) When I first heard about it, I got really nervous, I was like, “this is so ridiculous!” we’re being watched. But then as the days go by you just don’t notice it anymore and you just take it for granted that you’re being watched every single minute.

4) I’m not surprised.

5) I don’t like it. I mean, the police promotes it because it can be useful for solving crime, whether that is proportionate to the number is another matter entirely.

Narrator: We also spoke with Mr Murali Shanmugavelan, who convenes the MA Media in Development course at SOAS. He told us about a rival to the instant messenger application Whatsapp that is particularly popular in South Asia, called Hike. He told us that when he downloaded the app he was required to give permission for all manner of personal information. It makes one think, “What kind of information do apps like this need?” And what kind of access do they require?

Murali Shanmugavelan: Practically everything. And there you have to have some sense of ethics. Why do you need to access my multimedia files to launch a chat app?

Narrator: A question that I’m sure many of us have asked. He tells us about a perception related to the scale of economy attached to data.

MS: Data is a big business. Big data is a big business. But it’s a red herring. Whatsapp is the most influential chat app right now, but it hasn’t made any money. So, if you are talking about killer app + bigger data= tons of money, that is not the case. But somehow, we actually have bought into the idea that digital data equals money.

Narrator: In the course of our research on Digital Trails and Privacy we came across an article called, How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg, published in the New York Times back in 2012. This article revealed that the desire of some companies to collect information from customers was really nothing new. Citing retail company Target as an example, the article explains the system of assigning a unique shopper code, known as a Guest ID number. Through this Guest ID Number, each shopper’s consumer behaviour, demographic, home address, occupation, estimated salary, as well as the websites they visit are all recorded. That said, these companies are able to pay to gain access to very personal data about their consumers. These could range from information one gives away publicly such as one’s ethnicity, age, or brand preference, for example to the most private information such as one’s political leanings, or whether that person has declared bankruptcy, or even filed for divorce. This in itself reveals how much data companies and retailers are gathering and how they are executing effective marketing techniques through these data. This means that no one could question if we are all under a large social experiment, where all our buying and spending patterns are also being observed and recorded. The data we produce as individuals mostly benefit big corporations because as Dr. Oreglia has mentioned, this data, when segregated, becomes a highly valuable form of currency. Should we then as producers of data benefit from the money that we help generate or is the fact that we use these services for free sufficient enough to serve as a form of payment in return for our data?

But just like Amanda, our lives continue in the Digital world and leave digital breadcrumbs on the way.

Armed with new information on this matter, we stand at the crossroads; will this trail of data we leave benefit or harm us in the long run?

But life goes on in a bustling city as London.

Amanda once again woke up to the sound of the alarm, checked the BBC Weather app and continued to provide valuable information without taking any interest in it.

After helping make the public aware about information they are providing, and whether they would like to take an interest in its value; We, George, Jenn, Rooham, and Rudy would like to thank everyone who helped us with this podcast including SOAS Professors, staff and students.

A big thank you goes to Dr. Caspar Melville, Ms. Tess Woodcraft and Ms. Cassandre Balosso-Bardin for the guidance and support. Hope you all enjoyed listening to Digital Breadcrumbs. Signing off.

Picture designed by Rooham Jamali

Ths podcast was produced on ‘Digital broadcasting‘, an MA course taught as part of the skills training options offered to MA students studying within the school of arts (which combine music, media and history of art and archeology) at SOAS, University of London. This course exposes students to the latest thinking in digital podcasting, social media research and social entrepreneurship. During the course students make a group podcast on a theme related to research at SOAS and are encouraged to disseminate them as widely as possible using digital platforms. Pod Academy is involved in the teaching on the course.

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