by Barry Chudakov on December 28th, 2010

Tracking, Sniffing & Fingerprinting: The Metalife of Identity

A recent burglary at the home of Washington Post writer and editor Marc Fisher was documented by a Facebook boast.  The burglar took Fisher’s new coat, his son’s iPod, savings bonds, cash and a laptop. Then the burglar opened his son’s laptop computer and posted a photo of himself to the boy’s Facebook page. In the photo, the burglar flashes the stolen cash and is wearing Fisher’s winter coat.


Burglar Alarm At The Laundromat (Brackenridge, PA), Flickr, takomabibelot, Creative Commons license.


This seems like a modern cautionary tale of home and identity invasion cum in-your-face hubris. It appears to be an obvious violation of both space and identity (Fisher: he had to “showboat about his big achievement”). Yet that very obviousness defines an emerging new quandary. By conventional standards Fisher’s predicament entails theft, and we might say his son experienced a kind of ‘identity theft.’

How then are we to consider the mostly invisible monitoring and plunder of our identity as we navigate cyberspace? While I am not equating cyber tracking with burglary, when navigating online we consider ourselves independent agents and we further consider our identity on the sites we visit and the things we do there as ours. But when someone takes something from us as we are on on those sites, and when that entity not only takes it but re-uses it, even resells it–what then? Are there newer shades of violation here that we have yet to categorize?

Or is a new narrative emerging that describes uninvited profiling as a collective boon and so it need not be labeled theft, while privacy invasion is so beneficial to commerce (or necessary to our security) we willingly re-position it as tracking?

One thing is certain. Who you are and what belongs to you are undergoing profound dislocations.


The Eternal Struggle for a Sense of Identity in the Modern Western Man, Flickr, brancusi7, all rights reserved.


Growing Body of Evidence

“Dossiers will be built on each of us in the future in a much more intimate way. This will be used for much more far-reaching and invasive things than advertising.” Michael Fertik, CEO, ReputationDefender.

We still think of ourselves as confined to the space our body occupies. It may be time to retire that assumption. From ‘evercookies’ and ‘device fingerprinting’ to ‘history sniffing’ and GPS-enabled location tracking, now identity extends beyond your body to the information people know or find out about you.

Today, often unawares, your behaviors on and offline are being monitored, scanned and profiled. Recently the Wall Street Journal examined 101 popular smartphone “apps”—games and other software applications for iPhone and Android phones—and discovered that 56 of the apps transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent; 47 apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way; five conveyed age, gender and other personal details. The Journal summarized:

“The findings reveal the intrusive effort by online-tracking companies to gather personal data about people in order to flesh out detailed dossiers on them.”

While a lively discussion rages about protecting privacy from various invasive technologies, commercial profiling is intended to predict your next step or inclination and is not static, but is an evolving portrait of your movements, tendencies and locales. Given the breadth of temporal and predictive analytics, as they are called, such profiling constitutes something completely new: a Metalife of identity with a confounding narrative.

The narrative: your digital movements constitute information. With the average person uploading 15 times more data in 2009 than they did just three years ago, these relevant data points and stats are known in the IT world as “big data” and are foundational to the promise of cloud computing. Big data is merely descriptive, neither good nor bad, yet some believe big data holds huge promise, including the power to predict stock market movements. The fact that this information is descriptive of you is immaterial because its bigness comes from combining with evidence from other users: you are not the pulse, you are one beat in the EKG. On the open market of digital seekers and finders, this EKG constitutes a longitudinal study. Information, like water, seeks and finds its own level.

As Derrick DeKerckhove foresaw, the sense of where our body starts, ends and meets the world–known as human proprioception–is undergoing a profound change. As our identity regularly goes places without our awareness or explicit consent, our body becomes just one of the venues we call home. Documenting those travels is a new and growing business.

Not only are you no longer confined within your body, you’re not home alone anymore.


The Body as a Site of Cultural Representation, Flickr, Emily Sian Hart, all rights reserved.


The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

Like the metadata in a photograph, another layer of information is now accompanying you. As behavior and history-sniffing websites capture what you copy, click, and rollover–some even know which of their competitors you’re visiting–a profile or aggregate picture of you develops, like an image emerging in an emulsion photography darkroom. This is far more common than an occasional check-up from the odd website. As Technology Review reported recently:

a significant proportion of the 50,000 most-visited sites on the web are engaging in some level of behavioral tracking. Furthermore, and more disturbingly, a few are actually examining your browser’s history to determine what other sites you visit …

Last century the American poet Delmore Schwartz wrote about ‘the withness of the body’ in “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.” His words are evocative of our new Metalife:

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,

That inescapable animal walking with us: cookie stealing, location hijacking, history sniffing, behavior tracking, device fingerprinting are all ways of refining some entity’s picture of who you are, what you are seeking, where you go, your interactions, friends, and interests. This is not merely a question of violating privacy boundaries: your you-ness is not solely yours anymore.

Information about you is changing your life, giving you another life: opaque, too near, private yet unknown.


Bear Paw Print Petroglyph, Newspaper Rock, Indian Creek Canyon, Moab/Monticello Utah, Flickr, all rights reserved.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Us

Not only is the heavy bear going with us, now as we peruse information, the very information we encounter creates a meta identity out of our use of information. We are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, characters in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist tragicomedy, thrust existentially into someone else’s Big Data play. Like Marc Fisher’s coat, something has been taken from us (our sense of privacy, our consent), while targeted ads or a denied credit card application flaunt awareness of our moves.

Akin to stacked Russian dolls, this is an identity within an identity. Consider fingerprinting, the next wave of cyber profiling. No longer content with mere ads, today advertisers want to buy access to specific people. That access is granted via the tools those specific people use. The device identification firm BlueCava is building a “credit bureau for devices” in which every computer or cellphone will have a “reputation” based on its user’s online behavior, shopping habits and demographics. The more we search, the more we are tracked; the more devices we use, the more likely they will be ‘fingerprinted’–and, yes, of course those fingerprints are indelible. These tracks and behaviors are telling: they are writ large enough for some smart sniffer to profile us. Whether tracking discovers that we’ve been watching YouPorn (again) or that we like to shop for used cars on Saturday mornings, or that we like Ralph Lauren sportswear, it is not unreasonable to worry that these technologies are flummoxing our identities.

This is Paolo Gaudiano, president and chief technology officer of Icosystem, a predictive modeling company:

Agent-based modeling started a long time ago as a tool in the social sciences, for understanding the behaviors of populations. It’s come of age in the past ten years. The core idea is whenever you have a complex organization or ecosystem, it’s easier to understand and simulate the behavior of individuals and how they interact with one another and their environment than it is to come up with some kind of a mathematical law that tells you how the population behaves.

In other words, by tracking you we better understand you; crowdsourcing this better understanding leads to a marketable service: predicting your next move.


Fingerprint, Flickr, umboody, all rights reserved.


Swarm Smarts

A reasonable question now arises: what if predictive analytics serves a larger good? What if our personal information is more like a contribution we make to a non-profit than a home invasion? Yes, this information may be captured without our explicit awareness, but if the information is used to increase the rate of innovation or decrease drug interactions or any number of socially useful advances, how much direct perception of tracking is truly necessary? Further, once we get past the surprise of being watched, do most of us really care if we benefit from more access or more of what we liked previously?

An argument can be made that understanding how we use information will make any process better. Seen in this light, our behaviors are the wellspring of information itself; meta information, and our Metalife using that information is a natural product of our digital kinetics. Using information becomes elemental physics, a kind of wave mechanics of cyberspace: information, as our digital moves and preferences, is traveling through space and time and the energy transfer is the hand-off from how we accessed the information to how someone else can use that access.

Yet what of the nagging disquiet that no one consults us as our information is being used?

There is no need to take this personally. As mentioned earlier, Wall Street, using so-called ‘news algorithms’, is already looking at aggregate behaviors to predict market dynamics:

Math-loving traders are using powerful computers to speed-read news reports, editorials, company Web sites, blog posts and even Twitter messages — and then letting the machines decide what it all means for the markets.

Like so many Metalife quandaries, we have never before been in a state where so much of our activity, intentions or behaviors could create such a dramatic picture of ourselves. I didn’t think she would ever wind up on MetArt. What is he doing trading at a South African diamond exchange? If no one asks if we mind being tracked, and we are then tracked, is this identity borrowing or identity theft? Whether it is legal or illegal, is it right? Is it what we want? As Arlene Weintraub writes in Technology Review, our most intimate behaviors and patterns are the raw data of new models, each with a compelling narrative:

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, Deloitte Consulting uses models that predict individuals’ risk of developing specific illnesses based on their exercise habits, shopping patterns, and hankering for fast food. Future models may even include genetic test results and data from wireless health monitors. Scrutinizing all these factors yields insights about specific subgroups of the population, which financial professionals can then use to predict the longevity of individuals and the average longevity of groups.

These models develop what scientists Eric Bonabeau and Guy Théraulaz labeled ‘swarm smarts.’ Collective behavior emerges from a group of social animals, whether insects or humans, and tracking that behavior shows that we’re all creating big data all the time. Only now have our technologies become powerful enough to capitalize on this data explosion. But who in the swarm decides what all that data means? Being the ‘Decider in Chief’ has gotten complicated. “Swarm intelligence” posits that the meaning of our tracks is held in abeyance by all the others who follow in our same tracks.

We have a new Metalife as a swarm mate, a data point in a trend.

Whether or not a given government institutes a ‘do not track’ law, it would appear that getting rid of the heavy bear may not be so easy. We have become not only the sum total of our actions but our footsteps; not only what we have done in the real world but our careening and peeping in the virtual one. Or, most likely today, the augmented reality one.


Honey Bee Macro, Flickr, wildxplorer, some rights reserved.


Good, Better, Beast

In that nascent world Norma Kamali intends to capitalize on customer information using a technology called ScanLife that allows people to scan bar codes on merchandise and then access videos about her clothes; later, if she wants to do predictive analytics, IBM has a product called Presence that enables real-time mobile coupons and tracks shoppers’ spending habits and browsing time. Big data.

Municipalities trying to avoid traffic jams are also eyeing predictive analytics. With more traffic cameras, roadway sensors and GPS-linked devices like cellphones, big data is flooding transportation agencies. Again IBM is teaming up with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to predict traffic patterns up to an hour in the future, on roads including the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

Thinking of developing a new product? Need to acquire new customers or improve margins? Predictive analytics can help here too, perhaps even revolutionize the way you do business.

That’s the beauty.

Here’s the beast, courtesy of Michael Fertik:

“Accurate or inaccurate, life decisions are being based on your online personal information. It’s going to define you forever.”

This incremental shift in our identity resulting from the acquisition and interpretation of big data is an entirely new event that we need to think about deeply and discuss widely.  The point of the discussion: what is the highest and best use of this information?  The value of social media may not be to connect us all and get us texting as mobile thumb tribes. The real value may be to build an endless data flow, an evergreen data-driven mirror world of our social cosmos.  This then could be the social equivalent of splitting the atom.  What do we do with all the power that data unleashes? There are great riches here. How do we share that wealth?

We will undoubtedly use what we discover to sell and buy more. But what then? We can use this data to spy on one another, fuel paranoia and undermine collective trust. Or we can use this intelligence to foster social intelligence: greater awareness, understanding and support of one another.

The choice of Metalife is ours.


Visualizing Facebook Connections, Flickr, jeffmcneill, Creative Commons license.


Tracking, Sniffing & Fingerprinting: So What, Now What?

1. Social media lay the foundation and build the framework for social observation. The meta level of social media is data. Big data.

2. Tracking technologies create a map, a pattern of footsteps, movements, choices, destinations. These are your patterns and steps. This is another way of being and describing you, a Metalife you neither created nor asked for. Yet it stands as a record and indicator, a history and a predictor. Your so-called actual life will be significantly affected by this unintended Metalife.

3. You are no longer a sole actor, you are a trend, a prediction.

4. An emerging narrative: the public square is a fishbowl. In this panopticon, privacy is off the table, an inconvenient impediment to always-on monitoring and data capture.

5. The presence of screen culture creates a climate of (and becomes a metaphor for) monitoring. This is the Metalife of the lens where we entrain with (adopt the logic of) the tool that sees into and through anything or anyone.

6. As a result, watching has morphed from spying to behavior-tracking as a legitimate social benefit. Now watching others is not snooping but constitutes a sociology.

7. Your Metalife (data captured by tracking, sniffing or fingerprinting) can and will affect your so-called real life.

8. You are not alone; your identity is shared. The bear goes with you.

9. Your behavior is no longer a thing in itself: it is someone else’s data.

10. You are no longer simply you. You (and your behaviors, movements, tracks) are data, a marketing tool. You are for sale.

11. Social networking may be a de facto enabler of monitoring: when you are online you are providing watch fodder for someone.

12. Your movement online is raw data. Your choices are data points to the watchmen. Not only are you for sale, you have become information.


ID, Flickr, Nick Gentry, all rights reserved.


Further Information

Behavior & History Sniffing Websites

Big Data

Browser Wars

Deliberately Flaunting Privacy

Digital Tracking

Fingerprinting Devices

History Sniffing

Online Privacy Races Against Technology

Predictive Models

Predicting Human Behavior with Neuroeconomics

Scenario Planning & Forecasting

Tracking & Privacy

Tracking Software Uses Reasoning to Figure Out Who and Where You Are

TSA Scans: Security as Theater

Wall Street Traders Trade on the News

What They Know

Your Apps Are Watching You

70 Online Databases That Define Our Planet


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  1. cartagena jack permalink

    On the one hand this is the same thing as some perv creeping around my property peering into my windows & eventually finding a way into my house. I should be able to give him both barrels and haul his sorry corpse out for the critters to feed on.
    On the other hand i don’t really care who tracks me on-line because, at this stage, i have nada to hide.
    The idea of these technological peeping tom’s is creepy but here’s the rub: what is the downside for someone who has nada to hide? And if it did bug me what is the technological equivalent of a home defense shotgun so we can blow these invaders away?

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