Life: hacked! The risk of digital legacy

I didn’t know my maternal grandfather, he died when I was three and my grandmother never really spoke about him. There were some pictures around their house and she kept some of his favourite belongings, but not really enough for me to get a feel for who he was. I have learnt that he was an agricultural man; in a reserved occupation during the war he served as a special constable, as he was not allowed to go and fight. He also had a love of steam trains and came from Lancashire: not a lot of information about a man who lived for over 70 years. This made me think, has the world changed so much that my grandchildren will know more about me? More importantly, do we give so much away about ourselves that our whole lives could be hacked?

Creating your digital history

Today started like most others.

I was awoken by my alarm and checked my messages and emails on my phone, something I am sure other apps know about, as they always seem to send me notifications around the same time. My Garmin tracker tells me about the quality of my sleep and uploads the data to Garmin servers. At breakfast I check Facebook, a place where life is played out in such intricate detail that pretending to be someone would be easy. I am presented with adverts for things I might be interested in; products to buy and pages to like. It is almost as if Facebook knows exactly what I want to do and when I want to do it. Finally, before work, I brush my teeth with my Bluetooth enabled toothbrush, which displays a dashboard of my tooth brushing data, all held remotely on a server somewhere.

My trip to work happens in my Connected Drive car permanently connected to the internet; very useful for getting updates for the Satnav, but also providing data on my driving style, fuel consumption, and location. The status of my car goes to the manufacturer’s servers who can dig into it to see what I have been up to. My phone is also tracking my location, and Google maps asks me to rate a place that was next to a junction where I had to stop at traffic lights; not only does it know when I am going, but it builds a picture of what I do and do not like.

At work I use company email servers that save my messages and monitor my activity. My employer, as most employers do, claims ownership of everything that I do during the time I am using their equipment. This is a useful tool during staff disciplinary where systems have been misused, but also leaves users open to monitoring. My work PC contains “Windows Compatibility Telemetry” which, on its standard setting, sends usage data (including keyboard stroke information) to Microsoft directly. My phone and tablet even know I am at work due to the GPS location and Wi-Fi network, switching to my work profiles automatically.

After work, I go for a run; my Garmin tracks my every move, providing me with useful information about how fast and far I am running and how it compares to previous efforts. Afterwards, I can compare my performances using a dashboard and see insights into how I compare to other users of similar age and fitness levels. All of this data is held remotely on servers over which I have no direct control. During the evening, I spend some time clearing up work using a remote desktop connection, whilst messaging friends. I tend to use WhatsApp, the end to end encryption is useful, but the recent acquisition by Facebook means that settings need to be sought out to avoid sharing message information between the platforms. Finally, I go to bed, telling my Garmin that I have done so in order for it to track my sleep again.

Protecting your legacy

Back to my opening question, what will my grandchildren know about me? It is possible that they will know when and how much I sleep, what I liked to read at breakfast time, what car I drove, where I went, when, how fast and how sensibly I drove. They could also know what I did at work, what I said and when, which meetings I attended and access everything I did on my PC. My digital Google footprint could show them where I went and the places I liked to visit. Facebook will let them see my pictures and experiences, and access to my Garmin account would tell them the exercise I liked to do, where I enjoyed running and cycling, and the volume and quality of sleep I got.

I am quite pleased that my grandchildren will get to know much more about me that I was ever able to glean about my grandfather; what worries me is what would happen if someone got hold of this information for less savoury reasons. The internet connected devices we use give such a complete picture of our lives that, whilst it may seem the stuff of a glossy TV drama, our lives could be hacked. We, our entire beings, could be stolen and replicated with such precision that it would be difficult for anyone other than those who know us best to tell the difference.

By Dr Ben Silverstone is the course leader for computing and quantitative business at Arden University.

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