A few weeks ago I asked my Digital Media Literacy students to write a blog post about the media they create on a routine basis — email, social media, blogs, phone photos, etc. I wrote a post of my own as an example.
What I didn’t mention in my instructions was another kind of media we create: data that we don’t realize we’re creating, and which we largely don’t control. Here’s an attempt to quantify at least some of that.
When we take a photo with a typical mobile phone camera app, a lot more data get created than just the JPEG file that contains the picture itself. The phone, depending on the hardware and settings, stores some or all of the following: the location where the picture was taken; the time and date it was taken; what compass direction the camera was pointing; whether the phone was moving; and more.
Mobile apps in general frequently generate and save — often on remote computers — all kinds of things including location. They copy our contacts’ information. They look at our calendars. They check our phone numbers, the calls we’ve made, duration of the calls, etc.
I consider this kind of collection to be just short of spyware territory. The clock app in my phone has absolutely no legitimate reason to know my phone number and calls, yet it demands that permission. I block that kind of stuff–something I can do because I run an operating system called Cyanogenmod, which has fairly granular permission settings, unlike most mobile operating systems.
I create “cookies” on my computers (laptop, phone, etc.) when I visit other people’s sites and services. Cookies are used for many purposes, including identifying me for return visits, but also to create ways to track what I do.
Using the Web in general is an exercise in being spied on — it’s the fundamental business model for all of the “free” services such as Facebook and Google, as well as countless others. My visits to other people’s sites enables them to create all kinds of usage data on their own servers, not just on my computers.
I can’t prevent the spying entirely, and don’t want to when I’m getting something of high enough value in return. But I use a number of tools to keep the spying to a minimum. They include the permission settings in my mobile phone, and browser plugins that block (at least some of) the tracking. Students in my digital media literacy course are reading about ways to deter the invasion, and I hope they’ll take advantage of them.
People generally are becoming more aware of what we might call unintended data/media creation. That’s a good thing, and perhaps it’ll lead to broader countermeasures.