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Your Online Presence: The Data You’re Currently Sharing

By PETER LoPINTO

Chess. Historically, this game has symbolized the peak of human intelligence, calculation, and reasoning. Brilliant people would sit across the table from one another and compete in a battle of wits over a chessboard. As world chess champion Garry Kasparov once put it, “chess is mental torture.” And yet, in 1997 Kasparov lost to a machine. The top-rated player in the world lost to a computer.

20 years have passed since Deep Blue (the name of Kasparov’s digital opponent) challenged the superiority of human intellect. Anyone with a mobile phone can now download an app for free that could dominate any world chess champion. This chess dominance does not result from artificial intelligence but rather brute force. A computer can calculate trillions of moves per second, thinking much further ahead than the human brain can comprehend.

And this brute force method is the focus of my article: computers analyze more than chess moves using data points. These data points now include information about every individual citizen in the United States and can be used to predict their behavior and attitudes.

In chess, a data point is one move. This one move can branch out to multiple second moves, even more third move options, and so on. In the world of understanding individual human behavior, data points are your personal activity online. Many of your daily interactions with the internet are data points for companies that buy and sell your information.

The most obvious sources of your data are on accounts directly attached to your name that are somewhat public. These include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and dating profiles. Any activity that is logged by these websites can be used to create a personality profile of you.

On Facebook, there are many ways to teach the website about yourself. When you like a page for example, the content of that page fits in a spectrum that can be attributed to your personality. If you like a political page, the stances taken by that page are attributed to your Facebook personality index. For pages that are less obvious about their biases, the personalities of the people who have liked that page can be used to determine its leaning. If the majority of a page’s likes come from people who have liked conservative leaning pages, then that page can be considered representative of a portion of conservative-minded people. This internal cross-referencing between various pages on the website reinforces the validity of each data point.

Political opinions are the simpler end of the spectrum as far as Facebook data is concerned. This system of likes can determine your sexual orientation, drug usage, marital status of your parents, religion, skin color, relationship status, contentment with life, emotional stability, and more.

Beyond Facebook, Twitter data points can include keywords in tweets as well as hashtags. People who you choose to follow as well as whose tweets you like and retweet also refine your personality characteristics.

On YouTube, channels that you subscribe to and videos that you watch are logged. Even if you rarely visit YouTube directly, the websites that you visit with embedded YouTube players are connected to your main account. Some additional data points for YouTube include video likes, watch time for videos, and videos you choose to share on other websites.

LinkedIn shows your job history as well as current employment to the world, and while the prospect of finding a job is a strong incentive, your LinkedIn information can also be used as data points. Your activity on the website also can strongly indicate if you are looking for another job or happy with your current one.

Dating websites have some of the most complex personality profiles as the idea of matching well with another person is the advantage of these services. Everything you can imagine to describe yourself can be a potential data point.

Beyond the data that is publicly available and attributable to your name, there is data that is recorded by more internal processes on the devices you use to browse the internet. This information is not something that the average person would be able to discover about you but is nonetheless still stored by the companies that you use.

Internet browsers (Google Chrome and Internet Explorer, and to a lesser extent Firefox) collect data on your browsing habits that can be used to create more data points on you. Websites visited, amount of time spent online, and your geolocation are some of the collected details. If you browse the internet on your phone, that internet browser also collects your information. Your browsing history was previously protected by a number of internet privacy protections, but as of early 2017 those safeguards were overturned.

Mobile devices are another solid tool to learn about every individual in the country. As long as your phone is on, your cell phone provider knows your location. They also know who you communicate with, what time you talk to them, and how often the calls last. Other data points include your messaging information and app usage. Additionally, each app has its own access to data depending on the permissions you give it; for example, approving an app’s ability to know your location allows them access to these data points.

Lastly, your operating system collects data based on how you use your computer or mobile device. Beyond the online activities, it can also take data points on programs you use and time that you’re on the device. It has access to all of your personal files, but there’s no evidence that operating systems store that information.

In summary, almost everything is known about you based on our society’s dependence upon online connectivity. From Facebook alone, data scientist Michal Kosinski believes that with only 300 likes, his algorithm can predict a person’s behavior better than their partner. In the next article, I will discuss how all of your data points are already being used.

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Peter LoPinto

Peter LoPinto

Peter LoPinto is an audio engineer located in Savannah, Georgia. He has worked in web­based marketing and other computer projects including a few video games. He is currently an audiobook editor. Working in a profession dependent on computers and software, he has dealt with many common issues in technology. He has discovered a number of ways to cope with the problems the internet can throw at you and writes about them in his column, The Tech Whisperer.

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