From the moment we first are conceived, our DNA is formed from the factors of our mother and father. So too it is with our digital data DNA. At the moment of our first nascent touch of a connected digital device, we begin to shape our data DNA. Perhaps that is why it is so concerning to all of us when we discover Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon have so much power over our digital lives.
Increasingly, companies are being called to task for violating data privacy and choice. Australia recently sued Facebook for $529 billion. Facebook still has a debt to the United States government of $5 billion. The EU fined Google $1.7 billion for online ad strategy abuse in 2019, and the search giant was previously hit with a $5 billion fine by the EU for its Android devices under antitrust.
Manipulation of data is one issue; another is data breaches by hackers, which have been on a massive rise as well. Equifax lost 147 million credit records and was slapped with a $700 million fine. The five largest data breaches of all time — Yahoo (3.5 billion records), First American Financial (885 million records), Facebook (540 million records), Marriott (500 million records) and Friend Finder (412.2 records), according to CNBC — added up to a whopping 5.44 billion personal data records stolen. If each of these was a unique individual’s records (they in all likelihood are not), as measured against our 7.8 billion global population, that would account for 70% of the planet's population.
Our data DNA — what we do, where we go, what we buy, who our family and friends are, our likes and dislikes, the weather outside, brands, memes, tweets, songs, ads, posts, searches, etc. — builds our data DNA, and the age at which we begin today is frighteningly young. While at T-Mobile a while back, for instance, I saw a young couple with a toddler trying to figure out their phone plan. The two-year old’s babysitter was an iPad. Our data DNA starts forming and growing the moment we begin touching screens that are connected to the internet. At first, we have no online personality or gender. We then come into who we are, online, based on data we supply through our digital interactions and behavior.
We log into a site; we register to get more features; we begin to self-identify. We see the option to log in with Google, Facebook or LinkedIn (this is called “OAuth” in the tech world). Fewer passwords also mean more tracking. The version of our online self morphs every moment. The assembly of our data drives the machine that is tracking us. We are carefully guided based on our data DNA to take the desired actions. Desired by whom? That is the ultimate question. Is it our informed decision, or a careful modeling of our behavior and instincts?
In 2014 Facebook filed a patent on reverse profiling. Algorithms that make these connections work on our actions. They begin to infer who we are and what we will like from our Facebook activities — even from our friends' activities. This is called "homophily," which can be described as statistics used to define our relationships, our influencers and those we influence.
Automation that profiles us at exponential rates makes “keeping up with the Kardashians” look like child’s play to a profiling algorithm that keeps up with every internet visitor. Data profile analytics uses machine learning to encourage us to visit, “learn more,” buy, vote — the list is as endless as the choices on the internet. Ad engines return results tailored to our digital DNA in less than 100 milliseconds — less time than it takes to blink your eye at Kim’s latest tweet.
Amazon “suggests” what to read, watch and buy. Our watches tell us when to stand up and breathe. Businesses that use software as a service (SaaS) store our customer data DNA with the companies that license them software. Customer data is then aggregated and returned to those companies to learn how to manage our business, service and sales.
Business intelligence is big business. Should we be afraid? No. We can take control. Our currently mandated “socially distanced” world must use virtual connections daily. Like our leather wallet we keep close, a future with a digital ID wallet will hold more than your Starbucks and credit cards. Passports, employee access, money, health records, work records, education, finances and taxes will be the norm. To keep this private, “lock” your information for your eyes only with private keys. Privately encrypted identity can be achieved via a personal secure virtual space. This is our digital wallet we can have in our mobile device or on our desktop.
When aggregated, our personal profile, along with billions of others, is a universe of “big data” analyzed through a massive network. This means big money. Google generated approximately $135 billion in ad revenue in 2019; Facebook about $70 billion. In 2005 a project coined “Hadoop” (named after the inventor’s son’s stuffed elephant ) began a new way to structure big data about users. This model is used to provide information about users, as groups, and then serve the tools we use and the ads and information we see.
Today, more than ever, we must "do our lives" online. We can de-identify our DNA with a digital private-public key-based “wallet” that stores our private DNA information under lock and private key, using “key pairs” that are cryptographically secure, based on blockchain. We can use tools to ensure both privacy and our freedom of choice, and enforce social responsibility.
Our algorithmically shaped world is evolving daily. Blockchain-based data keys provide privacy while our mobile and laptop devices help us buy stuffed elephants through the tech elephants using “Hadoop.” Today we must stay home and stay connected, while we keep our digital DNA secure.