What do you know about your data online? Facts that you should be aware of and how to protect yourself

28 January 2019

Digital privacy is a topical subject, and for many reasons. Once we feel like we have an understanding of what our digital footprint is and best practice to protect ourselves, then there is a technological advancement and all of a sudden, we are back to square one!

As it is such a topical subject in today’s day and age, and to bring attention to International Data Privacy Day, we caught up with Elaine Kasket. A psychologist, author and futurist, and expert on death in the digital era, she has given us insight into key points that we should be made aware of with regards to out online data, and top recommendations to best protect ourselves online.

What are some of the key points that you feel the wider public should be made aware of with their data online?

There are so many interesting and important key points that it’s hard to edit myself down to just a few! I’ll give you four.

First, the corporations to which we are giving control, to which we entrust the processing, storage, and general management of our data, continue to control it when are no longer alive, and this has a huge impact on the modern grieving landscape. In many instances, family members are not the primary gatekeepers to or guardians of what’s left of us in the world – in fact, they may be outside the gate, in quite a painful way. Bereavement these days involves a lot of issues around access, control, and ownership of data.

Second, the material that we post online for others to see is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our digital footprints. You can manage your image – and by extension, your legacy – quite carefully on a social network. Your inadvertent autobiography may be far more telling. Your un-erased search history, for example, shows what you’re afraid of, what you’re into, what your secrets are – the dark night of the soul stuff. Our devices silently and even secretly capture huge amounts of data about us, ever more comprehensive – approaching a digital identity, not just a digital footprint. The body of information we leave behind is so hyper-personal that we may soon find ourselves in a full-scale rethink over whether the dead should have a right to privacy, formerly regarded as exclusively a human right that was held by living persons. If you’re a bereaved person who does have access to a vast bank of hyper-personal data about someone who has passed away, consider carefully before you go about mining that data, hoping for answers or comfort. You may get only complication, uncertainty and pain.

Third, when you’re trying to figure out what will happen to your digital data and assets when you’re not around, you cannot count on pre-digital laws and regulations to guide you. Pre-digital laws and concepts often simply don’t work with digital stuff. I think we’re going to have to start completely over, creating brand new concepts and systems for data protection, wills and succession, contracts, and copyright issues that do work for a digital, networked world.

Fourth, never assume that your digital data is ‘forever’, which is a recurring theme or assumption in the popular discourse. It’s so not forever. If there is stuff that is important to you, things that you want to be available in your old age and for future generations, my heartfelt advice to you is to transform it or back it up in an old-school way. We still have papyrus scrolls from ancient Egypt that we can read. By contrast, the QR codes some stonemasons are carving into grave markers are likely to be an oddity in a generation’s time, if not less than that!

What would your top 3-5 recommendations be for someone to better protect themselves online?

That depends on what you want to protect, who you are seeking to defend it from, and the nature of the threat.

You can better protect the important memories of your life from falling into the abyss of a 21st century dark ages by transforming personally salient information and memorabilia into other formats, including physical formats and locally-stored digital data on offline devices that you own.

You can protect your loved ones from eventual overwhelm by being highly selective about what data you amass and keep. Thought about in physical terms, our digital stuff builds rapidly into what looks like an episode of Extreme Hoarders. If you leave behind an undifferentiated mass of data as your digital legacy, your loved ones will have a hell of a time separating the wheat from the chaff, what is meaningful and important from what is not. And of course, having a lot of excess information about yourself online - stuff you don’t remember, monitor, or maintain - leaves you more vulnerable to criminal activity. Protect yourself by cleaning your digital house, often, and being careful about what you bring into the house in the first place.

You can protect yourself from lapsing into mindlessness and from contributing to the polarisation of discourse and society by limiting your exposure to your algorithmically optimised online information environment, and by keeping your critical faculties firmly switched on when you’re in it. I agree wholeheartedly with James Willliams’ contention that this environment constitutes a potential threat to democracy itself, through high-jacking our freedom of will, freedom of attention, and freedom of thought. (James is the author of the excellent Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.)  Balance your time online with offline exposure to ideas, discussion, people, education, and overall experiences.

You can protect your children by carefully limiting and monitoring their interaction with digital devices and the online environment. Remember this: the best minds in the world are employed in service of getting and keeping your attention online for as long as possible. Without effort of will and without staying mindful, you as an adult don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, in the online environment, of maintaining your freedom to live a life driven by your true values. Think about this atmosphere of algorithms and behavioural incentives like this: You’re just a middling player up against the world’s most sophisticated computer chess programme, which has been built and is overseen by the world’s master chess players. Your children are tender novices to the game. Psychological flexibility in general, and attentional flexibility in particular, are amongst the most important psychological safety nets we have. They are powerful tickets out of the inner prisons of anxiety and depression. Faced with this perennially tempting digital candy store, your children need your oversight to stay healthy and develop the attentional flexibility that will help keep them free.

Thank you so much Elaine for these invaluable insights into our online data!

For further information or to book one of our speakers, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070  or email  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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