OUR DIGITAL SHADOWS

December 7, 2021

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The internet is powerful because it connects us to each other. By the same power, it also connects different parts of our lives together. Everything we do online leaves a trace — a digital shadow. It’s time we all recognize that our actions traceable back to us, and act accordingly.

The internet encourages us to dive in and assume anonymity. There are so many things we can do, from media to shopping to communications. Sitting alone at our computers, it feels like nobody’s watching. And Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. make it easy to create seemingly anonymous “burner” accounts. But that’s not the end of the story.

Anything we do with a credit card makes a clear record of our actions. Internet connections have a unique IP address that are recorded whenever we use that connection to access a website or web service. At home, the office, or on our phones, this IP address can trace straight back to us.

Websites leave “cookies” on our computers that report back on our activities to their corporate masters.  Many popular apps directly spy on our behavior because, so far, people don’t seem to care. Modern tech giants built around commercializing our data, and they have systems set up to track us.

Furthermore, every text, email, and phone call makes an immediate and permanent “metadata” record of the communication. Metadata is easy to get — it’s in the hands of countless corporations, and governments don’t even need a warrant to get access. Even without knowing the content, a ledger of who we’ve communicated with, when, and for how long can reveal a lot.

Data collection and tracking aren’t inherently bad, but we need to account for them. Data can be hacked, stolen, and misused. It can also unmask behavior we hoped was secret. We’ve seen a parade of successful people implode their careers and their lives because they thought they could keep their online activities separate from the rest of their lives. It’s not working because anonymity is dead.

In one strange example, Philadelphia 76ers President Bryan Colangelo lost his job last week because of his wife’s “anonymous” tweeting. She never put her name on any of the accounts she used, and she must have thought they would never get back to her. But somebody traced those tweets back to their source and Colangelo’s promising career in Philadelphia was toast.

In this age of connection, we have to assume that the chickens will come home to roost, even if it takes years. We can delete a tweet, take down a blog, and deactivate Facebook, cancel online shopping and credit card accounts, but it still won’t erase our data. Copies will remain on computer servers around the world, probably forever.

Everything we do online, from email to shopping, is going to leave a quotable, searchable, hackable record of our actions that will last the rest of our lives. It’s never been easier to make complete fools of ourselves, and good judgment is more important than ever.

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