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.