Your digitalDNA™: Be Forewarned and be Forearmed
Beware, digitalDNA™ is much more permanent than your biological DNA
by Chi Modu
I originally wanted to title this piece, Protect Your digitalDNA™, but I soon realized that this is even more difficult than protecting your personal DNA. When law enforcement wants to acquire a sample of your DNA to prove your guilt or innocence in a case, they still need to get a judge to issue a subpoena in order to force your cooperation in the event that you don’t provide it willingly. If you stay clear of the cotton swab or avoid leaving a coffee cup that you drank from or a sprig of your hair behind, it is quite difficult to acquire your DNA without your consent or without you being forced to submit a sample.
Physical DNA samples are easily contaminated and don’t always hold up in many court cases. A new form of DNA that many submit willingly, albeit unknowingly, is their digitalDNA™.
Your digitalDNA™ is a unique digital profile, of you, that is created over time from the gathering and analysis of the patterns and habits of your interaction with the technology universe. This universe consists of various devices including computers, smart phones and a combination of mobile and home web browsing tools. To not get into too technical of a discussion, I’ll keep this as simple as tracking where you go, where you’ve been and how you get there in the digital arena… The way you move around the web, the questions you ask, the YouTube videos you view and the sites and stores you visit and the order that you view them is unique to you. Once an id is attached to you, then a database of all of this information can be analyzed and from that analysis an extremely accurate picture of who you are can be created.
The initial forays into this was done by using browser cookies, small text files placed on your computer from visited sites, that stored information about you that could be accessed by the site upon your return. The only flaw in cookies is that many people opt to block them on their system and are able to delete them and in a sense erase all of the data gathered on them from a particular site. This makes the cookie marginally effective as a tracking tool which brings us to where we are now…
Jennifer Valentino-DeVries of the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote about a company called BlueCava which is on a mission to catalog one billion of the worlds estimated ten billion connected devices by next year. Mr. Norris, of BlueCava, says their business model is based on building a “credit bureau for devices” in which every computer or cellphone will have a “reputation” based on its user’s online behavior, shopping habits and demographics. He plans to sell this information to advertisers willing to pay top dollar for granular data about people’s interests and activities. His plan is to offer this information to advertisers to help them target specific, blue chip, consumers directly.
The science behind how this system works is fairly simple and takes into consideration a bit of information that many don’t know about their connected devices. The truth of the matter is that all connected devices are not the same. Every time a computer goes online, it broadcasts hundreds of details about itself as a calling card to other computers with which it communicates. A tracking company, using sophisticated algorithms, can gather and analyze this data and uniquely identify computers, cellphones and other devices (ipads, kindles and that cool internet connected refrigerator and your brand new car along with its black box) to build a modern day dossier of the user. These devices are mostly analyzing passive information on your habits but keep in mind that many in this Facebook, Flickred, Twittered world are also helping by providing a decent amount of active data on themselves that can be cross referenced with the passive data to create an even more pin point profile of one’s self.
This technology, which was originally developed to help track illegal computer software and credit card fraud, is now being pushed as a way for marketers to reach their intended target. One can only hope that it’s only advertisers that are looking for new techniques to heighten their surveillance of internet users, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
What does this all mean? As the WSJ reports, It’s tough even for sophisticated web surfers to tell if their gear is being fingerprinted. Even if people modify their machines—adding or deleting fonts, or updating software—finger-printers often can still recognize them. There’s not yet a way for people to delete fingerprints that have been collected. In short, fingerprinting is largely invisible, tough to fend off and semi-permanent. Kind of like DNA.
The best advice is to learn to respect your digitalDNA™ as a unique profile of who you are. Understand it’s permanence once created and the damage that can be done to both you and your reputation if it finds its way into the wrong hands.