Agency and the Digital Alter Ego: Surveillance Data and Wearable Technologies

Agency and the Digital Alter Ego: Surveillance Data and Wearable Technologies

Sarah Young (University of Arizona, School of Information, Tucson, USA)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/IJSKD.2018070103
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Wearables produce a body of data controlled by the user of the wearable, and the institution creating the device or collecting the device information, and community members engaging with the devices. This article examines the privacy policies of the top five wearable vendors of 2016 to analyze how corporations describe the bodies of digital data they amass through surveillant assemblage. Results indicate four points of agency which surround bodies of digital information: data as alter ego, data under personal control, institutional power, and community. Although scholarship often emphasizes that entities of power control information, and wearable companies emphasize the user's ability to control their information, there are multiple ways the authors can think about the data, and not addressing the complexity of data can lead to limited ideas about agency, identity, surveillance, and visibility.
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Our bodies of digital information, or our “digital alter egos,” exhibit characteristics that seemingly give our data a superhuman life of its own (Young, forthcoming). Our data, taken through surveillance, is assembled together into various shape-shifting iterations beyond our control that can be invisible and untouchable, can transcend space and time, and can have super strength because it can be used to either grant or deny us benefits or place us amid categories of risk. Our bodies of digital data thus come to act as both our superhero and supervillain, depending on the outcome of their use. Much like Haggerty and Ericson’s (2000) concept of the data double, Clarke’s (1994) digital persona, or Solove’s (2004) digital dossier, the digital alter ego is an assemblage of various pieces of digitized information that are rearranged to form ever-changing bodies of information that come to represent us.

The idea of a digital alter ego, though, is particular in that it demonstrates the power of our digital data. It helps to show the limitations of teaching surveillance literacies as a pedagogical response for maintaining privacy and shows that despite our best attempts, and despite being informed citizens and consumers, our digital data still gets amassed whether we know it or want it to or not, and it can and will act at times as our proxy. Just because we are aware of cookies or government surveillance does not mean we escape those practices. We still must engage with systems.

But, while the idea of our digital alter ego is helpful, it is also limited. The idea that our digital data somehow acts as superhuman stand-in for us only presents one side of a multifaceted understanding of the agency associated with our surveillance data. For all the ways in which our data does take on some superhero characteristics, it still does not really have agency to act on its own. More like the Hulk whose strength, in some cases, has been used by others to complete their ends (Marvel, 2017), others use our data to complete their agendas (Haggerty & Ericson, 2000).

One way to see the varying locations of control when it comes to our digital data is by looking at wearable technologies. Wearables not only produce a body of digital information which can become a shape-shifting proxy for us, but they also produce a body of data controlled by at least three other groups: the user of the wearable, the institution creating the wearable device or collecting the device information, and the community members engaging with the devices. These additional points of agency for wearables are important to analyze because ignoring a larger sphere of influence can lead to a false sense of control of our information and can impact the way we think about our identities.

Ultimately then, by looking at the privacy policies of the top five selling wearables of 2016 (IDC, 2017), I illustrate at least four places of agency for our digital information: the data as our superhero, data under our personal control, the institutional power, and the agency of the community. I show that it is important to see a multifaceted view of control of our bodies of digital information because beyond wearables, the way we think about our data not only affects how we view our agency in surveillant systems but also the way others view us and how we view ourselves.

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