Hackers obtained the Social Security numbers of more than 145 million Americans. Paid political chaos monkeys allegedly harvested data from at least 87 million Facebook profiles in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. election, the Brexit vote, and possibly more. In a practice that could easily become discriminatory, police departments are mining social media profiles in the name of public safety.
These stories are all connected by a common denominator: data. Nearly everything we do online leaves a trail of data that is then combined and analyzed on servers across the globe in a kind of decentralized dossier of human behavior.
To many of us, that may sound abstract, or benign, or both. But is it?
To bring the issue out of the heady headlines, I tried to get a handle on how much of my own data was out there. This prompted just what you might expect: confusion, panic, and rage, followed by a strong urge to purge — to perform a data detox of my own.
Broadly speaking, my detox game is already on point. I’ve done the Master Cleanse juice detox (mercifully for my roommates, it was while they were out of town). I’ve been to sweat lodges. And every year or so, I do a clean install on my laptop and smartphone, wiping all the stored data and manually reinstalling apps and software, rather than recovering them from a backup. I know how to detox IRL and digitally. I’ve even written about it before.
Not a problem, I thought. I got this.
I focused on the platforms I use most — Google and Facebook — as well as my my favorite note-taking app, Evernote. Like many people who have taken a sudden interest in their digital privacy, I was startled by what I learned. It turns out I didn’t have this. None of us do.
I’m someone who’s been online since the mid-1990s. I’ve worked in the digital media and advertising businesses. I understand that our data is being collected to make products more useful to us and to make us more useful to advertisers. But seeing the surveillance economy all in one place made that truth more stark — and more unsettling.