Earlier this week, Diana kicked off the discussion of digital dossiers with a fantastic post on the Facebook News Feed as dossier. News Feed may be powered by an automated bot, but the user tells the bot what to do. If you’re savvy about privacy settings, News Feed allows you to manage exactly what could show up in your friend’s feeds. It gives the illusion of no control while you’re in control. There’s another dimension to digital dossiers though, and the most concerning part is the information that you can’t control.

Before launching any deeper into this discussion, I’d like to link back to a great video produced by Kanupriya Tewari, one the summer interns here at Digital Natives. I didn’t fully appreciate the meaning of “digital dossier” until I watched this video, which follows the digital life of Andy from before birth to after death. Andy’s digital dossier includes all the usual suspects such as his Facebook profile and email archive, but it also includes his online credit card statement, the GPS tracking device on his cell phone, the surveillance cameras around his college buildings, etc. At the end, Kanu says that Andy probably never knew how large his digital dossier was. Neither did I.

Even given fluid nature of the Internet, we have a fair degree of control over our digital identities. Digital dossiers, on the other hand, are by definition the accumulation of all digital information, most of which is out of our hands. This quote from the Digital Dossiers chapter of Born Digital linked sums up the key issues surrounding dossiers:

The problem with the rapid growth of digital dossiers is that the decisions about what to do about personal information are made by those who hold the information. The person who contributes the information to a digital dossier may have a modicum of control up front, but he or she rarely exercises it. The person to whom the information relates — sometimes the person who contributed it, sometimes not — often has no control whatsoever about what happens to the data. The existence of these dossiers may not itself be problematic. But these many, daily, individual acts result in a rich, deep dataset associated with an individual that can be aggregated and searched. The process, start to finish, is only lightly regulated.

Those who are vigilant about privacy may find the lack of control over our digital dossiers quite unsettling. Although most of the information is gated, there is no one or no central location to go to for our digital dossiers. Information is strewn across the Internet, with or without our knowledge.
Sometime last year, I had posted a short comment relating an anecdote about Facebook in Slate.com’s The Fray. (For non-Slate readers, The Fray is their discussion board and comments section rolled into one.) There were a few more comments back and forth before the discussion, as most threads do, eventually died out. I forgot about this exchange until I recently Googled one of my frequent Internet handles and found many of the results to be Chinese. Perplexed, I investigated further. What happened? Someone had taken the original Slate article by Christopher Hitchens along with several reader comments (including mine), translated it into Chinese (it was a very good translation, no Babelfish there) and posted it on a Chinese website. Several Chinese forums then picked up the article and discussions ensued. That my comment had sparked an entire conversation in a different language halfway across the world was something I only became aware of when I was vain enough to Google myself. My name, or my pseudonym, was attached to something that I didn’t know existed — another piece of my digital dossier I wasn’t aware of.

-Sarah Zhang

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