What’s your digital story saying about you?

digital_self_smallAre you in control of your digital self? Where do you stand on the issue of privacy in a digital society? Since you are likely reading this on a social network, do you understand the current privacy concerns?

Materials trying to answer these questions are usually known for curing insomnia, so notable exceptions are worth being brought to attention.

Al Jazeera had a refreshing approach to privacy, Big Data and Digital Society in a recent publication caled “Terms of Service”. To make it easier to follow the concepts, the authors Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld chose the format of a short comic book/novel. The approach worked on me: I simply could not put it down until reaching the end, and while I am not a fan of comic books, I considered it a rewarding 20 minutes read.

The authors write about privacy in the Digital Society, giving a useful short history of how the matter evolved to become a concern, and how this concern is accentuated by the Internet of Things and Big Data. The novel explains using Dan Geers’s framework of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Questions” how we tend to go down the slippery slope of trading off privacy for features and perceived cost savings. It also brings in the views of Prof. Scott Peppet on how peer pressure leads to more people revealing their private information on social networks.

By connecting all the digital dots that a person leaves in cyberspace, a “story” is formed. The authors stress how important it is to understand who gets to tell the story. If the story is told by someone else than its subject, it often leaves that person in the position of having to defend the truth. This can be a difficult task, and an example is given of an employer judging how well the prospective employee would fit based on their social media profile. The novel points out that particularly younger generations instinctively try to control their image through an affluent digital presence that allows them to tell their version of their digital story first.
Trading immaterial personal information for immediate tangible benefits (e.g. discounts or use of products) gradually builds up a digital profile. The Digital Society by its nature offers unprecedented access to data and enables companies and governments to draw conclusions about individuals based on these profiles. The examples given in the book (e.g. linking one’s social network to their fitness data to produce a credit score) show that such conclusions are not necessarily intuitive for, nor under the control of, the respective individual. However this doesn’t stop these conclusions from significantly impacting the person’s lifestyle, financial position, etc.

The novel concludes by highlighting the constant trade-off that we make in a Digital Society between privacy and convenience – with the latter winning most of the time.
The foundation of our Digital Society is being built at full speed. This evolution brings increased benefits and – no doubt – increased complexity and risks. The rules of the new game need to strike the right balance between convenience and privacy, and in order to do so, we as a society need to have a broader understanding of these concepts. This is why the timing and format of Al Jazeera’s publication seems to be just right.

What is your position on privacy and digital society? Are social networks a necessary evil, or have you already put on the tinfoil hat? How successful are you in mastering your digital self?

You can read Al Jazeera’s comic novel “Terms of Service” here:



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