Our digital footprints

What does our online behaviour reveal? Who is interested in it and why? Are we witnessing the birth of a digital Big Brother? Will the ever growing pool of online data help improve our lives?

Vesselin Popov, Director of Business Development at Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre (a multidisciplinary research institute specialising in online behaviour, psychological assessment, and Big Data analysis), discusses the hot topic of use and abuse of personal data collected online.

Vesselin Popov and his colleagues from Cambridge can learn a lot about us from our online activities. With current technologies well ahead of our imagination, the work of the Vesselin’s team sounds like science fiction.

AK: Is it possible to abuse the personal information that we provide freely online?

VP: It is absolutely possible and, regrettably, we see it every day. The Snowden revelations were only the beginning of public awareness of the scale of mass surveillance already in place in the United States and Europe. Recent investigations of Russia’s alleged meddling in USA’s elections and the targeted Brexit propaganda remind us that the whole truth has not yet been revealed. It can also be argued that “misuse” and “legitimate business purpose” are tricks and terms used very loosely, depending on particular business practices, specific regulations and people’s own opinion.

AK: Speculations begun last year that Donald Trump had won the US elections thanks to the method developed by the Cambridge Centre for the Analysis of Digital Consumer Behaviour, without your knowledge and permission. It is claimed that the same method was used for the Brexit campaign. Some would call it a straight manipulation. Do you agree that this is fair game? Where lay the boundaries of our personal space in your opinion?

Hacker Stealing Information From Computers

VP: First of all, Cambridge Analytica has nothing to do with the University of Cambridge. It is a subsidiary of the British firm SCL Elections and it’s funded by the American billionaire Robert Mercer. We’re talking about a digital agency, which, after seeing our publications in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in March 2013, had decided to develop a similar database and psychological forecasts models from data gathered on Facebook. According to the agency’s CEO, they’ve achieved it by buying data from data brokers. I don’t think it’s fair game at all. However, let’s not forget that Cambridge Analytica works not only for Trump but also for conventional financial and media companies and employers’ agencies (within a project called CA-Commercial). It is clear that they are gaining from all the public attention. I believe that at present the concept of personal boundaries has no impact on their work.

The digital footprints that we constantly leave online form an enormous depository of data. It is now used routinely by advertisers to send personalised ads according to users’ interests.

What else can our digital footprints be used for? How is the digital world changing people? What are the key purpose and main functions of the Psychometric Centre of the University of Cambridge? How much can we trust the digital profile of someone and does Vesselin himself have a Facebook account? You can find the answers to these questions and more in the full interview of Ana Klissarska with Vesselin Popov in the next print issue of ELYSIUM Business Magazine, coming out later this spring.

Cover: ©Andriy Popov/123RF.COM. 1st picture: personal archive. 2nd picture: ©Tomas Marek/123RF.COM

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