Digital footprint refers to a trail of activities online or via electronic media.

Imagine you were window shopping for a new AC on Amazon.

Of course, because it's a "window shopping" exercise, you didn't have actual plans to buy, at the time. But no, the AC you left behind is not going to take that. It gets up, leaves the store, and starts following you around as you surf elsewhere. You might end up purchasing another AC, perhaps, from a different site. Still, that AC from Amazon doesn't want to leave you. Afterwards, you start getting offers to purchase a TV set or even mattresses . This is a first-hand example of the outcomes of predictive analytics experienced by many on a daily basis.

Predictive analytics is the practice of extracting information from existing data sets in order to determine patterns, predict future outcomes and trends. It is a technology that stands at the intersection of data, human behaviours, and patterns.

Whenever we make use of the various online platforms, we leave behind traces of data called digital footprints by deliberately sharing information about ourselves (active digital footprints) or just by visiting a website (passive digital footprints). This in many ways has affected our mobile experience and is slowly impacting how we do things.

The superset of these online footprints is what is referred to as a Digital Dossier  which when queried enough explains things like the mailing offers we receive, recommendations we see on Netflix, and posts we see on Facebook. Ads and marketing strategies are the most obvious examples of how our personal data are being aggregated and analyzed to make predictions about us. The exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what these companies know about us, their potential market, and therefore, how precisely they can sell.

Predictive Analytics and Ethical Concerns

Predictions made from big data are beginning to deeply shape the majority of our living experiences; our careers, love lives (dating sites), major decisions about our health and well-being, and even if we end up in jail. These are now being governed in no small part by the digital bread crumbs we’ve left behind–many of which we don’t even know we’ve dropped in the first place.

While it’s true that analytics can already make smarter guesses than humans in many situations, people are more than their data. A world where people struggle to rise above what is expected of them–say a college that won’t admit a particular person because they don’t seem like someone with a good chance of graduating–is a depressing world. There’s the danger that we might lose our identity as people and become mere components of categories.

What happens when an individual is wrongly tagged by a computer as a potential criminal even before committing any crimes, and nothing can be done about it? What happens when a dating system is slowly pushing us to a more segregated society because it shows us the people it thinks we want to see? Or when personalized medicine can only save some lives because it is based mainly around genomes sequenced from a particular racial group?

When we hand over the decision making powers to analytics based on data, especially those that are mostly flawed or incomplete, we risk further validating bad decisions or existing biases.

Managing your digital footprints

Given the concerns surrounding the use of one’s personal data to make decisions on aspects of their life, it is important to know what kind of digital identity you have created over time and make adjustments where necessary.

One simple way to find this is by searching for your name on any search engine to see what links, profiles and images come up in the results. Review at least the top two to three pages of the search results. If you find anything misleading, wrong, or inappropriate. You can simply delete or edit to your choice.

In some cases, it is impossible to remove some information when it has been posted online. It is advisable to be conscious of the kind of information we release to the internet and who you give permission to access your information.


Edited by Fiyinoluwa Akinsiku