Paying for the Digital Life

In the last few weeks, a new semester of teaching at university has begun for me. I was preparing the usual introductory lessons with the aim of explaining clearly the main purpose of my course, “Fundamentals of Telecommunications Networks,” and intriguing students. Several thoughts crossed my mind on some of the evolutionary achievements we have experienced in the integration of the Internet and information technology appliances.

Without any doubts, we can say the crossing of paths between the Internet and our computing products has resulted in the creation of tools that have become the fundamental building blocks for our professional and personal lives. In the area of supply chain management — the major focus inside our community at EBN — we can also assume that the processes involved are stronger today, and that the key tools we use are much more cost-effective and transparent, due to the availability of the Web. This, of course, is obvious in the case of Web-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms.

The benefits of making the transition from standalone computing to intranet and then Internet capabilities are numerous. The processes are faster, dynamic, and interactive, and we have better planning and allocation of human resources, productions, and stocks. The virtual marketplace, e-procurement, and educational sessions leveraged by e-learning represent other opportunities for savings, profit growth, and improving employee skills. Web-based ERP has also provided new paradigms of employment (telecommuting, for instance), as well as mobility. I believe it's obvious many companies and people now “live a digital life.”

If we accept this paradigm, it is quite natural to ask a related question, which I have posed to my students: How much does digital life cost? The answers vary, but I would like to focus on one that is captured by how much of our individuality we've given up to have a digital life. This is our privacy and the ability of the digital world to track our movement, business, and other personal and public transactions.

In order to live the digital life, individuals and businesses need to have a digital fingerprint, which, like the regular fingerprint, is so distinct that it's almost impossible for two people or firms to possess similar features. The digital fingerprint I refer to here is not an avatar or virtual identity used inside a social network. It is much more basic and yet easier to track. Web-based functionalities have allowed browsers to assign and establish unique identities for users. (Mobility and cloud paradigm have made this even easier.)

This is one of the major costs of the digital life: I leave fingerprints, size 21-bit, of my identity everywhere. I have been profiled as unique, and I am traceable, even if I don't use any cookies to surf the Web. Merely by performing some basic configuration inside my running browser, I am reduced to a few bits of my individual fingerprint. That's not all. If I want to continue and expand my digital life, I have to leave a bigger fingerprint wherever I go on the Web, increasing the cost to me or my business of this virtual existence. Today, the smaller your digital fingerprint (for instance, due to privacy reasons), the fewer the Web-based services you can access and use.

Websites have become highly intelligent. Users can do whatever they wish on any particular site, but they need to pay a price by leaving a digital fingerprint. What the owner of the Website does with the information culled from the fingerprint is the actual cost to that individual or business. Some of this will be disclosed, but even the company collecting information about your digital existence may not know how it will use the data in the future. This is a concern to many in the business world and to private individuals, hence the explosion in cyberspace of arguments on privacy.

But as with anything about the technology world, the controversy is opening a business opportunity for someone else. For instance, how can we develop, market, and profit from a system (operating system, browser, or hardware solution) for using Web-based systems, whether by businesses or individuals, where the digital fingerprint we leave is zero or severely limited? Can we avoid the digital fingerprint phenomenon?

By the way, if you've got a notebook, smartphone, computer, or anything else for surfing the Web and you wish to see how big a digital fingerprint you leave behind, click here.

6 comments on “Paying for the Digital Life

  1. AnalyzeThis
    October 10, 2011

    There are already a variety of services and products which act as digital fingerprint erasers. These have existed for years. If you really, really want to avoid leaving a digital fingerprint, you can certainly do so.

    So why do more people not utilize these services? Why is there not more demand for these “erasers”? I think it's because, in general, people don't mind leaving a digital fingerprint. It's not that important to them. I personally am not especially concerned about how advertisers cookie me in order to serve relevant advertising on sites I visit, etc.

    By not leaving a digital fingerprint, you also give up something which is important to many people: convenience. By not having a history, saved passwords, cookies, etc., web browsing can be more time consuming and less customized. Many people (including myself) are willing to leave some fingerprints around if it means that we'll save time and/or be provided with more personalized content in the long-term.

    And of course there are some things you can't really do if you're concerned with being anonymous: using Facebook with your real identity, for instance.

    While I do agree that there are indeed some very valid online privacy concerns, I'm not certain that there's a whole lot of demand for these anonymizer services. Like I've said, they've existed for years, and I think in general are considered to not be worth the hassle.

  2. Daniel
    October 11, 2011

    “The controversy is opening a business opportunity for someone else”

    Matteo, you are right. In real time for certain things, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in digital or analogue form. Companies are trying to create more digitalized things, to make them unique from the competitor and in turn as a business. I think most of the companies are marketing simply the word “Digital”, without offering any digital content. It’s a trend in certain period and now companies are trying to market the word “green”. Most of the end user or customers are not able to differentiate this differences.

  3. Jay_Bond
    October 11, 2011

    @DennisQ, I agree on your comment about people not really caring. For some people the “erasers” do exactly what they want. I also don't really care what sort of digital finger print I leave or how the ads are directed at me. If I was that concerned I wouldn't use the web and I'd pay cash for everything.

    On the positive side, I guess I would rather have ads catered to me based on my preferences rather than viewing stuff I don't really care about.


  4. Matteo Bertozzi
    October 12, 2011

    Well Jacob, contents matter is very critical at current stage. We need to access “digitalized” contents using PC, Notebook, Smartphone and Mobile Access, indipendently. As everyone of us has experienced, way to present contents to us are still conditioned by electronic display that we are using, even contents' provider want to know exactly who we are, collecting info from our digital fingerprint. It could appear not fair and after all, I believe it is not fair.

  5. Matteo Bertozzi
    October 12, 2011

    DennisQ, it is a good perspective. I believe sometimes couldn't work fine especially in case your are sharing with other people a browser, instead of a browser installed in your personal device PC, smartphone or whatever. In that case several people don't want to leave inside a public and shared workstation, their password or surfing history. Another point is about fairness of distributed content. If someone decided to publish a content it is represent a decision up to him and maybe is not fair to access that content conditioned by fingerprint's size you are available to leave there.

  6. Matteo Bertozzi
    October 12, 2011

    I agree Jay_Bond, it is the cost for surfing throught the web. Particular thing is erasers or other anonymous surfing platforms as Tor or AnchorFree, in reality, doesn't ensure an anonymous utilization, in fact algorithm mentioned in the article demonstrated the rebuild of individual digital fingerprint even for those cases.

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