Your Digital Dossier

What does your online information say about you? Does it just say your name and email address, or does it go much deeper?

When you download a new a pplication to your smartphone, do you sign up with an email address and unique password, or do you opt for the 'Sign in with Facebook' or 'Sign in with Google' option? Most people choose to login with either Facebook or Google to which they already have an account.. If we start combining the datapoints we give these companies, along with other corporations that have been known to acquire such information, it will most likely build quite the dossier on us. If we start breaking down what we allow these applications to store, we can realize how our entire identity can basically be summed up in our smartphone. 

This might have already crossed your mind, which is good, but after a recent discovery, I started rethinking everything.

In September of 2019, BuzzFeed News reported that period-tracking applications MIA Fem and Maya "sent women's use of contraception, the timings of their monthly periods, symptoms like swelling and cramps, and more directly to Facebook." This information is then used for many different reasons, one of which being using targeted advertisements based on the information you've entered into these apps. Possibly more disturbing than targeted advertisements is the fact that Facebook knows these extremely personal, intimate, and none-of-their-business datapoints about you. 

Now let's dig into an app like Maya, a period-tracking app used by more than 8 million women that’s designed for the monitor of many different, personal factors. It will automatically predict your fertility, allow you to manually enter your cycle and flow length, the ability to log your love, weight, and temperature, logging symptoms and moods, cravings, etc. This company was selling its app data to Facebook. They SOLD YOUR LOVE! Okay, maybe not your actual love, but they sold the log of your love life. This includes, but is not limited to the amount of sexual activity in which you're involved, was the sex protected or not, the date and time, even a new or current partner. I've seen many companies invade personal privacy before, but this has to be one of the most disturbing cases I have ever come across. It was sharing information that allow targeted advertisements. These ads may have been for the food you said you were craving, NSAIDs or Tylenol if you claimed to be having pain, and unfortunately, the list goes on and on. This issue, though, is two-fold. Not only is it horrendous for a company to share this information, but also, this is information we probably shouldn’t be sharing to any app or smartphone. In Apple’s most recent operating system, iOS 13, they allow for “Cycle Tracking.” Sharing personal information can build a portfolio of datapoints on you that can tells your story.

I'll give you an example, by using myself: my iPhone screen is quite organized. I keep only one complete page of apps, with all of them sectioned off into their own folder based on their "genre." Excluding the iOS apps developed by Apple-proper, I'll start with the Goliath of YouTube. I don't think there is much I need to explain. It is now part of Google. Datapoint 1 - Your viewing preferences (what you like or dislike, suggested videos that you've clicked on, etc, etc). The next application is ESPN. Now this app might seem harmless and not prone to saying much about you, but here we go: Datapoint 2 - what teams I like. This could elude to where I live (I've "Favorited" the Portland Trailblazers, Oregon State Beavers, Seattle Mariners). This shows I'm likely from the Pacific Northwest. I'm also a fan of the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks (go figure, I'm part Canadian). Now you have an idea where I live, or where I'm from, maybe both. You also can guess my heritage, as well as you know my viewing preferences, which for me is stand-up comedy, programming videos/tutorials, R&B music videos. Now you know that you can maybe ping me with Ticketmaster tickets to a comedy show, a new programming book or piece of software, a new album from Alicia Keys. I imagine you can see where I'm going with these two, seemingly innocent apps.

With any application which you’re using Google or Facebook to login through, you are giving those to monoliths the ability to capture any information you provide the app. In some situations, even if you don’t login through Google or Facebook, the provider still may sell your data to these companies. Often you can get a slight idea of what a company may do by observing their Terms and Condition, and their Privacy Policy.

I started thinking about how common this might be, and my curiosity was piqued about what other applications might sell your information to a third-party. I began my digging into the boredom of Privacy Policy text that floods the internet, and to my shock, the number of apps that sell information are more likely than not. First, I thought about what kind of apps have sensitive information. Arguably, any personal information is sensitive, but in the age of information and disinformation, I decided to narrow my focus to data that I thought the general public would deem as personal. Here are a few of the apps I found, along with their corresponding genre:

  • Headspace - Meditation

  • Sober Grid - Sobriety & Accountability

  • Lifesum - Health & Dieting

  • Tinder - Dating

  • Mint - Finance & Budgeting

  • Orgasm Tracker - Intimacy

  • Grindr - Social Networking for LGBTQ Community

With the release of Apple’s iOS 13 and watchOS 6 came an additon to their HealthKit, Cycle Tracker, yet another app to keep track of a woman’s menstrual cycle. While many people and researchers have claimed that this is a major breakthrough, I am slightly more hesitant to think that this is the smartest idea. We have provided our cellular carriers so much information and digital latitude, that we truly are selling our freedom and allowing our rights to be exploited. The First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments to the constitution all have to do with our privacy, along with the Privacy Act of 1974, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Whether it be our privacy of beliefs or privacy against unreasonable searches, much of what this country is built upon is the ability to live our own lives freely. 

My last exmaple will hopefully drive this point home. I heard of this Facebook “feature” in which you can navigate to your own page, and it will guess your political views based on your online activity. I must admit that I am surprised Facebook is being this transparent with their ability to track everything we do and collect datapoints, so seeing as I haven’t had a Facebook in a year, I asked my spouse if they would give this a shot. I had them log on to Facebook in the browser, and they navigated to Settings –> Ads –> Your Information –> Your Categories –> and looked at the category of US Politics. It showed what Facebook thought was their political beliefs, and it was spot-on. It is possible to do this from your mobile device as well, using a similar sequence of Settings. This shows how much information Facebook gathers on you - enough that it can guess your political ideology and be accurate.

When choosing what applications you download to your smartphone, just remember that most everything you provide those apps can be sold to another company.

Selling Your Personal Data

Not long ago, I wrote an article about virtual kidnapping and how to avoid it. In that post, I talked about making your Facebook and Instagram profiles “Private,” so random strangers cannot look at all of your personal information (family members, where you are, what you like/dislike, political views, etc.). I did, however, not speak about the overarching reason why I find this so important. Let’s start with this…your personal data should be yours. Yes, it should be. Even though you’re voluntarily giving Facebook or Instagram your information, which you agree to do in the Terms of Agreement, this monopoly of Facebook and other analytics companies (e.g. Cambridge Analytica), are able to build full profiles on you. These profiles stretch way beyond your date of birth, preferred pronouns, or a few pictures.

These companies create comprehensive data points about you that relate to your likes and dislike, and connects you to your fellow humans. Think of it this way - you are represented by a node (a small dot on a large piece of paper). You like basketball. I like basketball. An edge (or line) connects the two of us together due to our shared interest of basketball. You can see in the sample below that the nodes are denoted by Twitter accounts; the edges by retweets. Now this is a very minor example, but when we blow this up to a large scale and add millions of people, we start to see patterns arise. Through these patterns, companies can then create algorithms to target certain groups of people. Here is a quick example for you - this graph below, created with a piece of software called Graphistry, was created by scraping (gathering) Twitter tweets over a specific point in time. What this is directly referencing is the #FalseFlag narrative that surrounded the Christchurch Mosque shooting. This graph was compiled by @JessBots on twitter. It's a brilliant account that I highly recommend.

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Have you ever thought, I really should purchase ‘x’, or I want to buy ‘y’, then the next day you see an advertisement specifically for that product? Isn’t it creepy? It’s creepy enough when you search for something via Google, then that product starts showing up in your Amazon suggestions, but when you have mere thoughts of something, then that product starts showing up, it becomes incredibly disturbing. What causes this? As far as I know, it’s not Alexa or Siri listening to you, although I cannot guarantee that. It’s actually because these algorithms are so good, that they predict human thought and behavior. Now this is not something that the majority of the populous can wrap their mind around - the fact that a machine can predict our behavior, but I know for a fact that it is happening.

It’s easy to see how it’s happening as well - everything we’re posting or saying online is being queried and added to a giant database that is connecting each and every one of us. Companies are easily able to do this with their Terms of Service. For example, let’s look at Instagram’s Data Policy on what kind of information they collect:

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The amount of information that you are allowing them to collect is astronomical. The other issue, Instagram is owned by Facebook. That's even more data-points in one spots, but as Facebook sells your information to companies like Cambridge Analytica (CA), we see these data points get connected evermore. A New York Professor, David Carroll, filed a legal claim against CA last year, requesting all of the information they had on him. They did not comply, so Carroll is left in the dark. If CA had nothing to hide, whey not turn over the material.

We've all heard of Cambridge Analytica by now, the company that filed bankruptcy to supposedly duck from having to turn over all of their information to authorities. CA helped provide data for the Trump campaign in 2016. This is simply a fact, not some type of political statement. They also assisted with both Obama campaigns.

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During the 2016 Presidential Election, Trump's digital media director, Brad Parscale, launched an online campaign which was budgeted at $100 million. In the end, he spent just over $12 million, while the Clinton camp spent less than $4 million, and most of those were on Politico and the NY Times. With this information, it’s easier to see why he won. They used microtargeting to target small, specific groups of people with the "Lock Her Up" campaign, “Build The Wall” (and “Mexico is going to pay for it”) which was built on the premise that there are more illegal immigrants flooding the border than ever before, which is false, and the “Muslim Ban,” claiming all Muslims are terrorists. It also was so viral that even the right wing majority leader at the time, Donald Trump, started using it in speeches.

Parscale was named as the digital media director for Trump's 2020 bid as of February 27, 2018, and he has supposedly already stashed away $7 million for the reelection.


That all being said, here is what I think we have in store. As we share more and more information online, we are giving the rich and powerful, the top 1% of the top 1%, more ways to target us. Again, if this doesn’t bother you, then more power to you (or less in the grand scheme of things). I just think that elections shouldn’t be determined by what people share on social media. They shouldn’t be determined on smear campaigns that target ads at the disenfranchised and uninformed.

I truly believe that if the Democrats want to pull a 2020 victory, they are going to have to go toe-to-toe with Trump, not just in their digital campaign but in debates as well. With so many candidates in the field for the left, they need to find one that can actually take on Trump, and not get run over by his belligerent behavior. It won’t be Pete Buttigieg, and definitely won’t be the slowly-going-insane Joe Biden.

I know I’ve completely deviated from “your private information,” however, this private information is being used against yourself and your fellow American’s in, what is equivalent to, rigged elections.

We need to be cognoscente about what we put on our social media profiles. Be weary of advertisements and don’t take everything for fact. Always, always assume that what you’re looking at is actually “fake news.” Not the kind that twists stories to fit a narrative or bias (Fox News, MSNBC, etc.), but the legitimate kind of fake news - the news that is actually not true at all.

Moving forward, all we can do is take back the data that is rightfully ours. I deleted my Facebook in early 2019, and I haven’t looked back. For about a week, I missed being able to check it, but overall, it has separated me from the drama that so easily runs rampant on Facebook. I enjoy Twitter for the connections in my industry and hobbies, and I love Instagram for being able to see other people’s photos (family pictures, friends, etc). I do, however, keep my Instagram on the Private setting.

It’s no longer a matter of if big-tech is selling your information, it’s just how. What can you do? Keep your information private. Don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t be comfortable with the entire world knowing, including your parents & grandparents. Please, pretty please, for the sake of your children - make your profiles private. Don’t give these companies any more of your private information. Be weary about what you put online. It has a legitimate impact on this country and your future.