Digital Dossiers: always a glass half empty…?

As a person interested in research regarding the use of the Internet, and who believes in education through the use of digital devices, I have always tried to find positive aspects about the phenomenas created by our digital environment. I was born in 1983 and although I’m considered a Digital Native, I don’t necessarily consider myself “born” digital, and have the privilege of being able to reflect on what has changed since computers and digital devices have entered my life. I remember clearly the first time I ever saw a computer and how, initially, it always seemed to be related to video games. Then, I started using e-mails and, ultimately, chat-rooms. After that, my memory seems to get blurry, signalling around the time I started to view digital technology as a part of everyday life. By then, I felt all the information in the world could be reached through the Internet and a lot of useful things could come out of it.

When I think of dossiers, however, nothing positive seems to come to mind. I did a lot of research before deciding on how to write this post, trying to find arguments that could point to the benefits of having an extensive Digital Dossier. However, the search was not successful.

The first idea that came to my mind referred to a conversation I had once with a friend. By then, I was mentioning to her the fact that I always get bugged when I go buy something on The website knows exactly what I might buy and how to make me spend money on things I didn’t even need. Interestingly, this friend of mine said that this was exactly what she loved about it. She didn’t have to keep searching for information on books: the website would offer her all she needed.

In his text “Surveillance in cyberspace: the Internet, personal data, and social control,” David Lyon writes: “The Internet was born in (and for) an era in which two cultures found themselves in tension – the culture of the free consumer and the culture of control, … consumption has become a central way of organizing society around the idea of free choice. But consumer management, in a delicioux paradox, attempts assiduously to guide our choices!”

When thinking of all the personal information I have spread on the Internet, all I can think of are security or privacy issues. For me to use services on the Internet, as I said before, I give free access to my personal information in exchange. This personal information is then used for different purposes: I receive credit cards I did not order from different banks, my personal data is sold to companies trying to sell me something (they keep calling me), people have access to personal information made available against my will, etc. None of these uses seem to have any benefit for me!

It seems Digital Dossiers have become a fact of life. Everything from the message I send on my cell phone, to the channels I watch on my digital TV, to the pictures I upload on my Flickr account: everything is tagged, creating a diffused map of who I am. What I ask, is for you to help me find a positive aspect on it. How can Digital Dossiers be used in a positive way, enhancing social relations and all the possible connections that may come out of it?

– André Valle

Leaving Footprints

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’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