Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Constructing, Visualizing, and Analyzing a Digital Footprint

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Constructing, Visualizing, and Analyzing a Digital Footprint

Article excerpt

    Whenever a new technology is born, few see its ultimate place in
    society.
    --Paul Ceruzzi, [1986] 2000

In the age of pervasive, ubiquitous computing, concerns written about by science-fiction authors such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in the early twentieth century have found a new and poignant relevance, one that has escalated dramatically as events related to the United States' "war on terrorism" have progressed. Although the need for an improved intelligence infrastructure in the United States is undeniable, present threats to personal privacy have no historical analogue (except in science fiction). Concurrently, exciting new technologies that make use of federated databases and location-aware technologies are becoming increasingly available for all manner of uses. These technologies--as with those that comprise an effective intelligence infrastructure--have vast potential to both benefit society and erode personal privacy. It is imperative, therefore, to foster an informed public debate concerning the desire for new technology, the need for security, and the right to personal privacy.

In this article we discuss these three intermingled concerns; and in doing so we make an effective argument for the necessity of recognizing that all three are not only salient but also mandatory in discussions concerning the use and misuse of new location-aware technologies. Additionally, we define our notion of a "digital footprint"--the digital traces each one of us leaves behind as we conduct our lives--and describe our attempts to visualize this footprint using specialized software developed as part of this research. This article contributes to the privacy/security/technology debate by offering practical examples of the possibilities for constructing digital "profiles" of individuals and groups using current and emerging technologies. It seeks to provide a methodology for understanding the impacts, both positive and negative, that these new technologies will have on societies of the future.

We begin from the standpoint that technology of itself is inherently neither good nor bad. Nevertheless, whether a new technology should be put to a particular use can raise some extremely difficult questions. Implications following the introduction of some technologies can include ethical, legal, and moral issues that demand and deserve serious attention by all those who may feel--directly or indirectly--their potential impacts. It is our opinion that the continued use of existing surveillance technologies and the introduction of new technologies certainly warrant such attention. One of the contributions of the work described here is the method used to argue the importance of considering these issues as they pertain to technologies of surveillance, especially location-aware technologies of surveillance and the means to fuse together personal data collected across different organizations. It is our belief that the technologies discussed below have great potential for both harm and good. Furthermore, it is our belief that a holistic investigation of the potential impacts of these technologies is essential to ensure that human rights are not unnecessarily or unjustly violated in the pursuit of capitalist enterprise or national security.

A great many laws have been passed to ensure an individual's right to privacy; for example, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Data Protection Act of 1988 in the United Kingdom. However, since their inception, the rights that they seek to uphold have been challenged time and again. Challenges have come from the adoption of new technologies as well as the introduction of new legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-56, [http://fl1.findlaw.com/news.findlaw.com/cnn/docs/terrorism/hr3162.pdf]). However, as we suggested above, these technologies also have many necessary and legitimate uses in both public and private sectors. The "war on terrorism," for example, has made the necessity of surveillance technologies unmistakably evident. …

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