An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2016

Reassembling Our Digital Selves

Deborah Estrin and Ari Juels

Digital applications and tools that capture and analyze consumer behaviors are proliferating at a bewildering rate. Analysis of data from large numbers of consumers is transforming advertising, generating new revenue streams for mobile apps, and leading to new discoveries in health care. In this paper, we consider a complementary perspective: the utility of these implicitly generated data streams to the consumer.

DEBORAH ESTRIN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2007, is Professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech and Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is Founder of the Jacobs Institute Health Tech Hub and Cofounder of the nonprofit Open mHealth. Her recent publications include articles in Journal of Medical Internet Research, Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, and ACM Transactions on Intelligent Systems and Technology.

ARI JUELS is Professor at the Jacobs-Technion Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech. He has recently published articles in Journal of Cryptology, Communications of the ACM, and IEEE Security & Privacy Magazine.

Our premise is that people can unlock immense personal value by reassembling their digital traces, or small data, into a coherent and actionable view of well-being, social connections, and productivity. The utility of reassembling the self arises in diverse contexts, from wellness to content-recommendation systems. Without design attention to the unique characteristics of small data, however, the image that these data provide to individual users will be, at best, like a cubist portrait: a fragmented picture of the self.

Management of small data presents fundamental design questions regarding the “who, what, and where” of access rights and responsibilities. The blend of competing and cooperating entities handling small data breaks down distinctions such as that between shared and private, and renders questions like whose data are they? hard to answer. Conceptual boundaries blur further as data increase in sensitivity and become “activated,” such as when personal apps process and fuse longitudinal data streams to drive context-rich personalization algorithms on the consumer’s behalf.

We explore this confusing landscape by drawing attention to three critical design objectives: programmatic access to the digital traces that make up small data, activation of small data for personal applications, and creating privacy and accountability measures for the apps and services consuming small data. We point out the limitations of existing perspectives on both data ownership and control, and on privacy mechanisms, such as sanitization and .  .  .

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