Living on the Grid: Your Digital Paper Trail

While technology provides many conveniences, privacy advocates are concerned that individuals are leaving an unprecedented amount of personal information about themselves stored on public and private servers.

Let’s look at a typical day of a person who uses common technologies.  Under each time slot, I note the places her information is stored.

5:50 a.m.— The alarm on her work issued smartphone goes off ending her sleep.  She hits snooze.

5:59 a.m.— Her alarm goes off again and a reminder also pops up reminding her to call her significant other who has an important call with India.  She uses her smartphone to place the call and is happy to hear that he is already awake and thanks her for the call.

Cell towers, call recorder on smartphone

6:05 a.m.— After putting on workout gear, she heads out for a three mile run.  Her GPS enabled watch tracks her distance, pace, and heart rate.  The results of her run are automatically posted to her watchmaker’s website and to Twitter when she finishes.

Watchmaker servers, navigation satellites, Twitter

6:35 a.m.— She returns home, showers, and gets dressed.  A new coffee shop has recently opened up in her neighborhood, and she uses Google on her work laptop to find the address.  She gets into her car and uses its built in navigation system to create a route to the shop.  She passes through several traffic lights equipped with cameras designed to capture vehicles that run red lights.

Her internet service provider (ISP), Google, Google’s advertising network partners, keylogger on work laptop, navigation satellites, city traffic servers

6:45 a.m.— She pulls up to the shop’s drive through window and pays for her order using a credit card.

Credit card provider servers

6:50 a.m.— Using her EZ-Pass RFID card on her windshield, she drives through the express lane at the toll plaza and takes the toll road to work.  A picture of her license plate is sent to the toll system by the toll booth to charge her account.

Toll road servers and cameras

7:35 a.m.— She arrives at work and walks to the main entrance.  Swiping her ID card opens the door and she enters the elevator in the lobby.

Card reader, work network, security cameras in lobby and elevator

7:40 a.m.— After easing into her chair, she pulls out her smart phone and checks in on Foursquare.  She is excited to learn that she is now mayor of her office building and has ousted the security guard!  This information is also posted to Twitter.

Foursquare, Twitter

8 a.m. – 6 p.m— After spending a few minutes checking Facebook on her work desktop, she starts her work for the day.  She responds to numerous emails, attends six meetings, and works on documents due at the end of the week.  Most of her work is done on a desktop issued by her employer connected to the corporate network.

Facebook, keylogger and screen viewer on work desktop, corporate network and email servers

6:30 p.m.— She meets her colleagues at a local bar for happy hour.  She checks in there on Foursquare (which is also posted on Twitter) and buys a round of drinks for her friends using her credit card.  One of her colleagues uses her iPhone to take pictures of the group and uploads them to Facebook.

Foursquare, Twitter, credit card provider servers, Facebook

8:00 p.m.— She leaves the bar and drives home.  During her drive on the toll road, she talks to her mother on her cell phone.

Toll road servers, cell towers

While most of this information is aggregated and made anonymous by online service providers, there is no guarantee that this information can not be subpoenaed by a court order or a divorce attorney.  While few of us can avoid using credit cards, much of the information we provide is done on a voluntary basis.  Furthermore, as smartphones become more powerful and consolidate our online lives, they become single points of failure for protecting our personal information.  The digital age’s freedom has to be weighed against the cost to our privacy.



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