Beware your online footprint

Shrien Dewani is the latest case in point of how your online past can come back to haunt you.

Read time 4min 20sec

If there is one thing the wonderful invention of the Internet and ensuing advent of social media has taught us, it is that you need to be careful what information you liberate into the great unknown that is cyber space. One day ? like it, expect it or not ? it may very well come back to haunt you.

One of the way-too-many cases in point, Shrien Dewani's credibility is the latest unintended casualty of online activity.

The British businessman, who stands accused of ordering a hit on his brand new wife almost four years ago, kicked off his plea of innocence last week by stating he was a bisexual man who occasionally dabbled in alternative batting - but was hopelessly in love with Anni, the woman he married in October 2010.

Presumably, this assertion was to sideswipe the state prosecutor in its pursuit of motive for the arranged murder he stands accused of.

I was almost slightly swayed. That is, until one of the most telling witnesses of our era, the World Wide Web, stepped in and cast a dark shadow over the picture Dewani painted of himself. According to his online dating records, the accused is a single gay man, who is "submissive, filthy-minded and perverted".

Dewani apparently joined in 2004 and was a member until his profile was deactivated a week after Anni's death - one day before her burial.

Abundant info

I'm not saying one can judge a person by his or her abridged online blurb, but data science has reached a level where years of personal data can be used to do pretty much just that - determine character.

And, these days, everybody uses amateur algorithms to sum people up - from employers to potential partners. It's what the online world of almost limitless information has created: a database of almost anyone you want to know more about - without actually having to meet or converse with.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the US last year shows how easily accessible digital records of behaviour, via Facebook Likes, can "automatically and accurately" predict a whole bunch of highly sensitive personal attributes.

These range from innocuous info like religious and political views and ethnicity - to the potentially pernicious, like sexual orientation, personality traits, intelligence, happiness and use of addictive substances. Researchers even claim they can use online footprints to determine whether a Facebook user was brought up in a broken home.

Christian Rudder, co-founder of the US online dating site OkCupid, reckons that if employers had to start using algorithms to infer how intelligent you are - or whether you use drugs - your only choice would be to game the system.

All this raises issues around big data and how it is being used for personalised marketing. It also begs the question: "Where does our online privacy begin, and where does it end?" Without completely cutting ourselves off from online life, how do we protect the information we put out there - knowingly or unknowingly?

Rudder has written a book called "Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One Is Looking)", which outlines how he has used the huge amount of data he has stockpiled from users' online actions, to find out things about them that they may not even know themselves.

Researchers even claim they can use online footprints to determine whether a Facebook user was brought up in a broken home.

The new-generation matchmaker's findings show how, almost accidentally, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we're changing. "All we have to do is look."

And it's not always entirely obvious - or evident at all - to us when we visit, post, share and comment. While the scores of Twitter faux pas that have left prominent figures either red-faced, fired or stalked have probably struck the fear of God into many would-be impulsive tweeters, there is a much subtler trail of personal evidence you leave behind, with every bit of binary you contribute to the virtual universe.

It's an online data crater - you leave your mark each time you comment, like, buy something or even visit a site. You don't know where the information lives exactly, but you do know it's out there. Sooner or later, it may come back to bite you where it hurts most - your reputation.

Nowadays, the words "I know where you live" may still induce fear, but they certainly don't have the same surprise factor they did before the advent of the Internet and big data.

Surprising? Not entirely in this day and age. Unsettling? For sure.

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