Facebook tells me you live in Mumbai and graduated from Manchester University in 2018. LinkedIn tells me that you work as a freelance writer. Instagram tells me that your last vacation was in Goa. Your Medium article casually mentions how a fraudulent transaction happened from your bank account last month. Your tweet to Zomato says that you placed an order last week at 8:10 PM to be delivered in Bandra. But McDonald’s got it all wrong. And it was an hour late! What I am trying to get to here is that your digital identity is well and truly scattered.
Some platforms hold information that you knowingly provide, while others hold information that you unknowingly provide. For example, I could have never guessed your Zomato order, but you told me yourself.
Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It
The internet poses a dilemma. As much as we want to keep our data private and restricted, it compels us to do otherwise. We see everyone put up their Facebook profile pictures, so we follow suit. A Snapchat trend tells us to share a photo from our hometown, so we oblige. These small, apparently trivial pieces of information that we share create a trail that leads to us.
When we think about the internet, we feel that the computer screen quite literally acts as a wall between us and the world. You might remember Peter Steiner’s popular cartoon from 1993 in the New York Times. It said, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
And it was true. Back in the day, the screen was our firewall; nobody knew who was on the other side. But today, the virtual landscape is the complete opposite. We are not known by a strange username anymore. Instead, very real, accurate data about us is out there. As a result, the line between our real-world identity and digital identity is becoming increasingly blurred.
The Ugly Truth
The equation is quite simple. Data is equal to money. And because companies are obsessed with the latter, they virtually forbid you from going under the radar to stay anonymous. So much of your data is captured at every step of the way, be it your IP address or your pet’s name, that secrecy remains elusive.
So now that no one is anonymous, should we trust people’s online profiles? The answer is still no. Because it is easy to collect so much data about an individual, impersonating them and stealing their digital identity is a piece of cake.
We’ve had stories show identity theft consequences ranging from stealing a couple of thousand bucks to committing tax frauds to even linking an honest citizen to an international murder.
You Are Not the Customer, You Are the Product
As highlighted earlier, our digital identity is fragmented and spread across a plethora of platforms. And while they all capture different aspects, we are slowly losing control over our digital identity as a whole.
Websites you surf on are passionate about giving you exactly what you want to see and exactly what they want you to see. When you sign up with them, you feed data that they desperately need to make personalisation happen. They want to predict every move so accurately that you remain addicted to the experience they provide.
You are happy that your feed is customised as per your liking, and the company is satisfied that it can use your data with consent. Since you didn’t pay them a penny for their services, you are not a customer. You are a product whose attributes they can now exploit.
A data breach on any platform results in your information being revealed to hackers, and this act is done without consent. Since your specifics are readily available in so many places, just imagine how easy it is to collate and piece together your precise digital identity.
By the time you make sense of what has happened, you have lost all control (if there was any left). You are merely a puppet in the hands of the hackers.
Reclaiming Control Over Your Digital Identity
There is one and only one universal truth when it comes to the digital world – your identity should be in your hands. Since none of us can establish control anymore, the next best thing is to reclaim the lost control.
The first and foremost step is to end sole reliance on passwords to protect sensitive data. And I mean all the way from your Amazon account to your bank. No company is “too big” to be hacked in today’s times, so don’t be fooled into believing that certain accounts are safe.
Start adding an extra step in the login process by implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) through an authenticator app. Every time you fill in your password, you will also be asked to fill in an OTP generated on the authenticator app.
The next part is to store your essential documents like national identity cards, driving licence, passport, etc., on zero-knowledge encrypted platforms. Zero-knowledge implies that the server can verify the presence of your documents but has no way to know their contents. This method has proved to be far superior to other methods of encryption.
These steps will make your life stress-free and the hacker’s life stressful.
Even if you decide to go off-grid today and leave behind all smart devices, your data will stay right where it is. The digital landscape is evolving with every passing moment, and you will continue to be on the backfoot unless you choose to take charge.
Having control over your digital identity is necessary and the only way to move towards a more responsible and ethical future. A privacy revolution is brimming but will only reach its conclusion if each one of us takes an active part.