October 20, 2013 10:21 pm

Technology: hot on your data trail

footprint©Dreamstime

Which cloud services do you use? I’m betting that your personal email is probably a Gmail or Hotmail (now Outlook.com) account, or possibly a Yahoo address. Where do you keep files if you want to access them while you are out and about? Dropbox, Google Drive or possibly Skydrive? How important are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ to you?

Following the stream of revelations about how much access governments have to your data, how worried are you about using those free services? Or are they so valuable that you can live with the fact that the digital footprints we leave behind us are available to marketers, spooks and hackers?

More

On this story

On this topic

IN Executive MBA

The revelations from Edward Snowden about the access governments can have to our data has prompted some to rethink how they live their digital lives. Others – and I fall into this camp – are surprised that people are surprised.

We generate a breadcrumb trail of data every moment of every day. Your mobile phone checks in with masts, tracking your journey. The coffee you bought with your reward points on the way to work is another digital breadcrumb, pinpointing where you were at 7.40am and noting your preference for an extra shot. Paying the gas bill online at lunchtime on your work computer; collecting points on your supermarket reward card when you paid for that pizza and bottle of wine on the way home – all of these are data points, and all are valuable to somebody, usually a marketer, but in some cases to the police or to a government.

Snowden’s revelations have made “something that was invisible visible”, says Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist by training who leads the development of user experience at Intel, the chipmaker.

Bell compares the way the Snowden revelations have shone a light on how we generate data – and how it is made use of – to the map produced by John Snow, a doctor, in 1854 that brought into sharp focus the cause of a cholera outbreak in London.

“There were all sorts of theories about what was causing the cholera,” says Bell. “But it was the map that plotted the outbreaks and showed that they were taking place around one water pump.”

Shining a light on an issue – whether it is identifying the source of a cholera outbreak or prompting a look at who has access to the data we generate – forces us to do something about it. For individuals, it is about deciding if the value of the services you get in return for allowing marketers – or perhaps the US government – access to your digital breadcrumbs is a fair exchange.

There are all sorts of attempts to measure the worth of the metrics you provide as you live your digital life. Tools such as twalue.com will come up with a dollar value on your Twitter account based on data points, including on the number of followers you have and the number of people you follow. Apparently my Twitter account is “worth” $5,900.38, although pile-of-cash.com values my Twitter profile at $6,740.18. Disconnect, which blocks browser trackers, offers a tool (fbme.disconnect.me) to see what your Facebook data are “worth” – $311.28 in my case, apparently.

Much more interesting is the cost of providing the free services we all rely on. A backlash against the perceived overarching reach of the US government prompted the appearance of prism-break.org, a website listing services such as encryption tools and adblockers, and open-source alternatives to the software and services provided by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Over on the US west coast, open-source activist Eleanor Saitta is the driving force behind Moonlet, which will be a small personal cloud services collective. The aim is to pool the resources of up to 40 people to pay to create and manage an open-source alternative to the email, blogging, photo-sharing, calendar and contacts services that we take for granted from Google and Microsoft.

The collective is considering hosting the services in Iceland “because of its favourable legal jurisdiction”, adding that “unfortunately for North Americans, nowhere on our continent is suitable”.

It is an interesting and thoughtful response to the discourse sparked by the revelations about the US National Security Agency. What particularly strikes me about this initiative is the estimated costs to the collective of setting up and administering the services: at present, they reckon it will be €50-€100 a month.

That is not to say it costs Google that much per head to provide you with email, cloud storage, blogging platforms and similar services: Moonlet cannot compete with Google’s economies of scale. But it is an insight into the value of those services and thus the value of the data and metrics we generate for those big companies.

My feeling is that most of us, if we think about it at all, reckon it is a deal worth doing. But perhaps the next wave of cloud computing is one where we are all rather more aware of the value of what we are providing as well as the worth of what we get in return.

-------------------------------------------

Meet or greet: apps to help you connect with friends or colleagues

What3Words for iOS and Android (free)

Maps are great until you want to meet in a place with no address, such as the third tree west of the Italian Gardens in Hyde Park, London, for a picnic. You could text that to your friends, or send them a reference that pinpoints the spot on a Google map. What3Words does just that: choose your spot, get the three-word pinpoint and send the link to your friends. (That tree, by the way, is at w3w.cm/goes.decay.picked.)

FlightRadar24 Pro for iOS, Windows, Android (£1.99) and Windows Phone (£2.29)

One for weary frequent travellers, this shows aircraft in real time anywhere in the world. Click on the plane and get details of the aircraft, flight, speed, altitude and position. Point your device’s camera at the sky and it gives you an overlay of the flights above your head, or you can get a virtual view from the cockpit window. Great for meeting a colleague’s flight or dreaming of escape.

Bump for iOS and Android (free)

Transferring anything between devices is easier said than done. Bump can send photos, contacts and documents between Android, iOS devices and PCs or Macs. It is less bother than pairing with Bluetooth but looks as silly as sending something via the tap-and-send near-field communication features of newer devices, as you have to physically bump the two devices together.

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.