College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Your Digital Footprint

Doug Jacobsen teaching

In this episode of Factor Analysis we sit down with University Professor Doug Jacobson, director of Iowa State’s Information Assurance Center, to discuss the new Netflix documentary “The Great Hack“, as well as some best practices for keeping your digital footprint safe.


DOUG JACOBSON: Your digital footprint is all over the place. Everywhere you go, you leave a digital footprint, and many places you go, you’re identified.

TRAVIS BALLSTADT: I’m Travis Ballstadt, and I’ll be your host for this episode of Factor Analysis. Today we’re talking with Iowa State’s resident expert on cyber security and professor of electrical and computer engineering Dr. Doug Jacobson.

In light of recent large-scale security breaches and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, concerns related to cybersecurity and digital privacy have reached new heights, even prompting a Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack.”

THE GREAT HACK CLIP: “I was teaching digital media and developing apps, so I knew that the data from our online activity wasn’t just evaporating, and as I dug deeper, I realized these digital traces of ourselves are being mined into a trillion dollar a year industry.”

TB: That was associate professor of media design at the New School, David Carroll, taken from The Great Hack. The documentary showcases fallout from the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, a controversial data-mining endeavor that collected the information of over 87 million Facebook users. The data was then used to craft media messages and political advertising to sway opinions during the 2016 U.S. elections and the Brexit vote in the U.K. I asked Jacobson about the impact he felt the film had on showing the public the capabilities of data aggregation.

DJ: “It really opens up your eyes to the type of data and the correlation that can be made, I mean, individual pieces of data by themselves are pretty harmless, but you get enough of it that can be correlated and you can begin to make some pretty interesting decisions.

THE GREAT HACK CLIP: “Remember those Facebook quizzes that we used to form personality models for all voters in the US? The truth is, we didn’t target every American voter equally. The bulk of our resources went into targeting those voters whose minds we thought we could change. We called them The Persuadeables.”

TB: With everything that was involved in The Great Hack, what was your biggest takeaway?

DJ: “First, it was the failure of Facebook, in that Facebook allowed this correlation across people. It would be one thing if you decided what breakfast cereal you were, but by doing so, that exposed your friends. That is a flaw in how Facebook implemented their paradigm.

Facebook has an interesting dilemma; their paradigm is to involve all your friends. The whole reason people are on Facebook is to get likes by their friends. Their whole goal is to share information, so Facebook exposing that kind of fits in line with the whole paradigm of Facebook. The problem is that the more data you can collect, the more you can target people. In the case of The Great Hack, it was really targeting people to find information to help sway their political views. But the same information can be used to sway their opinion on what car to buy.”

TB: A 2018 Pew Research report finds that roughly half of all Americans do not trust the government or social media sites to protect their data, and nearly two thirds would prefer to have more control over who is getting their information. With concerns over privacy mounting, I wanted to hear Dr. Jacobson’s thoughts on how the current environment interplays with this public perception.

DJ: “Your digital footprint is all over the place. And many places you go, you’re identified. Your browsers know who you are because in part, it’s helpful to you…you come back to a website and, “Hi Travis, Welcome Back!”… It’s kind of friendly. As footprint spreads out, more and more data is collected.”

TB: In the case of Cambridge Analytica, the company violated Facebook’s terms of service in their data collection endeavor. The fine print outlining an entity’s rights to using an individual’s information is more often than not overlooked by social media and app users. The level of access to personal data that companies have is shattering previous expectations as methods for gathering personal information continue to evolve.

DJ: “The amount of information that we voluntarily give out to the computer, that we would never, if a stranger walked up to you in the street and asked you the same questions you just handed to Facebook, you’d walk away. Ninety percent of people would turn around and walk away. And maybe call the police, depending on the nature of the questions.

“You don’t see nearly as much of people canvassing, or, again, in our era there would be people standing there taking surveys. You don’t see that anymore. It’s all been replaced by something that gets a much higher hit rate.”

TB: In the environment characterizing today’s digital age, what is on the minds of many people is how to protect peoples’ private information. Though Jacobson says it begins with the individual user.

DJ: “Today, it is much more likely that the human played a role in the bad thing that happened…Again taking off the table things like the Capital One breach, there’s not a single thing any one of us could do to prevent Capital One, as a consumer. I mean, there’s steps you can take, some people will have a credit card they use for online shopping. People will use different techniques to do those things.”

TB: When it comes to maximizing protection of personal information, for Jacobson, the bottom line is to weigh the risks associated with online decision making.

DJ: “It’s really about using common sense, especially when talking about social media and information sharing – at least in the back of your mind ask a question of “what if a stranger was asking me this”? The same goes for posting things I always tell kids, “would you post this is your grandma was your Facebook friend”?

“Again, the computer is a friendly thing – its ours – this is my phone. Why would it hurt me? There’s this barrier that has been torn down of allowing strangers to interact with you and gather data on you that without the internet you never would have done.

“Let’s be honest with it. Facebook is a billion dollar company. Yet they sell nothing. Their money, the currency that comes into Facebook is, in essence, our information. They turn around and sell that through the ads, and so these things are free. We’re used to the internet, 90% of the internet is free. It’s free because we’re paying for it with our information. In some cases that’s maybe perfectly acceptable. Not all data collection is bad.”

TB: And there you have it. Use a password manager, a credit monitoring service, and a little bit of common sense.