Do we own our own data?

Bill Cheswick’s Internet Mapping Project. The edges of individual networks are traced and subsequently colour-coded.

My personal project is based on Social Media, the information we provide social networking sites on a daily basis and how this information is being used or will be used in the future. Bill Cheswick’s image above is representative of the scale of networks created by Social Media. Just think of the immeasurable amount of information being shared!!!

In 1993 Oscar Gandy coined the term ‘panoptic sort’ in order to assign a name to the complex structure of the collection of data about groups and individuals and the subsequent discrimination which follows on the basis of this data (Gandy, 1993). The data collected is generated from people’s everyday lives as employees, consumers and citizens. This information is then used to organise and control the individual’s or the group’s access to both the services and goods that define our modern capitalist economy (Schermer, 2007). While Gandy, however, confines his portrayal of the workings of the ‘panoptic sort’ to the area of the free market economy, it is quite clear that it can equally be applied to what I will call “website surveillance”.

When you search for a particular item or service within Google, advertising for that item or service will subsequently appear on your screen. The adverts that follow us around the web are in fact linked to the various things that we search for and the information that we submit on a daily basis. Data is continuously being collected. However the data collected is not limited to the search itself, but rather, websites gather as much personal information as they can about every individual user.  According to Lawrence Lessig over ninety percent of commercial websites collect personal information about their users. This data is then categorised and used by these websites in various ways (Lessig, 2009).

Jaron Lanier, the American computer scientist and writer of You are Not a Gadget states that on social networking sites such as Facebook, “life is turned into database” (Lanier, 2011). In a BBC interview conducted with Lanier in 2011 he argued that there are in fact two kinds of data collected by these social networking websites. The data we know about includes all visible information available on our social networking profiles. However, there is an immeasurable amount of data collected about us that we do not even realise we are providing.

Max Schrem, an Austrian law student, argues that Facebook is of the belief that once information is written and posted to their social networking site it is in fact theirs to do with as they please (Schrem, 2012). After requesting that Facebook send him all the information about him stored on the company’s database he received a twelve hundred page document which was essentially all the information that they had acquired  about him since 2008 when he first joined the social networking site. The information, Schrem concluded, was in violation of European laws regarding privacy. However, the company has yet to change the way in which it collects its users’ data. It is apparent that the vast majority of people remain unperturbed even though many of us do acknowledge the fact that search engines such as Google and social networking sites like Facebook can track and spy on their users.

According to IBM, the International Business Machines Corporation, the majority of the information that is available in the world today has been created in the past couple of years following the explosive popularity of smartphones and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Websites, as I have previously explained, gather information about their users, however add to this the growth of e-commerce, GPS signal information, digital images and videos, and it is clear that there is much more data available about us than we had previously imagined.

In recent years however the notion of “Big data” has sparked worry amongst various people about infringements on privacy. “Big data” is a term used by those who occupy the information technology circles. The term refers to the vast amount of information that is stored on the web, possibly indefinitely. The worry lies in the fact that this data is now being accessed by researchers and is becoming an invaluable asset to companies. To put it simply, companies have the ability to grow their businesses with access to this information by learning how to understand their customers’ behaviour, by contacting them in real-time via Twitter to ensure satisfaction and to learn about their customers’ preferences for future reference. One may question where the line between what is public and what is be private should be drawn and also whether  the use of “Big data” will benefit us or whether it could be deemed the next Big Brother.

The video below by IBM shows how “Big data” could be used in order to predict demands for a video game.

Jaron Lanier argues that the data which is deemed valuable is the data that the user has no access to and quite often does not know about. He states that it is this data which is used by companies such as Facebook (Lanier, 2011), Twitter and Google in order to sell access to you to third parties, the so-called advertisers. The main problem with this is that users do not in fact own any of this data and their private information essentially becomes public property.

I argue, however, that the problem surrounding the idea of “Big data” is not in the gathering of the information itself but the potential that is there for a person with bad intentions to abuse and misuse it. The notion that what we are exposed to online could be tailored to each individual’s preferences and interests is one that I find both unusual and unnecessary from the point of view of a consumer, however I can appreciate the value it holds for businesses and other various companies alike. If individuals are given access to the control of their own data while allowing important relevant data to flow freely then it could potentially be a great innovation. Who will apply these restrictions however and how will they be policed?

All things considered it is clear that we should always be mindful of our internet footprint and be wary of the way we portray ourselves online. Always remember that what goes online, stays online…FOREVER!!!



Gandy, Oscar. The Panoptic Sort: Political Economy of Personal Information. Westview Press Inc. 1993. Print.

Lanier, Jaron. You are Not a Gadget, Vintage: Reprint Edition. 2011. Print.

Lessig, Lawrence. Code: Version 2.0, Version 2, Basic Books. 2009. Print.

Schermer, Bart W. Software Agents, Surveillance, and the Right to Privacy: A Legislative Framework for Agent-enabled Surveillance, Amsterdam University Press. 2007. Print.

Online Sources: Videos

Lanier, Jaron. “What ‘Bugs’ me about Facebook.” 6 December 2011. Web. 19 March 2013.

Schrem, Max. “Max Schrems (AT) – Europe versus Facebook.” March 10 2012. Web. 24 February 2012.




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