Time for a data detox

Once upon a time, getting stuck on the subway stairs behind someone who is furiously tapping on their phone, pace slowed to a crawl, holding up a whole line of commuters, brought me closest I'll ever come to homicidal rage.

These days, I'm much more contemplative of the implications of what they're doing with the little gadgets in their hands. In fact, I've come to see my fellow straphangers as modern-day Hansels and Gretels, leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs in their wake, with, unfortunately, legions of wicked witches, big, bad wolves and a whole lot of clever marketers trailing behind to scoop them up. Writing about cybersecurity foibles every day will do that to you.

Still, despite concerns over security and privacy, it's easy to think of all the data we shed – as well as protecting it – in the abstract.

Until, that is, you step into The Glass Room, a Mozilla pop-up experiential exhibit in NYC and you're hit with the full magnitude of the many ways you might be tracked, surveilled and your data collected, used and manipulated.

The slick, spare space looks much like an airy high-end electronics retail store. But nothing's hawked there except the proof that your data can and is being used - and abused.

The installations on display - artworks, investigations and activist projects – are designed to make consumers consider their personal data, privacy and security and reflect Mozilla's professed advocacy of twin goals – universal access to the Internet and privacy protection.

Upfront, the exhibit takes issue with the refrain of those who routinely justify giving up their privacy and security, claiming to “have nothing to hide.” The displays show many ways personal data can be collected and includes one in a set of thick books that list the 4.7 million passwords exposed in a recent breach of an online company.

Shudder at the thought of unfettered surveillance and profiling? They were clearly on the minds of Americans this election cycle – ProtonMail noted an uptick in signups (more than double) for its end-to-end encrypted email service in the week after Donald Trump became the President-elect. I bet you, like me, are way more accepting if it's couched as “care” – Mozilla's “Big Mama” installations, for example, includes an app that allows children to monitor their elderly parents from afar.  Or maybe it's more palatable if the ones doing the spying, er, monitoring is an institution that you trust – the exhibit features a Churchix app designed to help churches track attendance using facial recognition. I mean, what's wrong with that?

By the time I made my way through the whole of the exhibit, I could practically feel the personal data rolling off of me and the vultures behind me poised to swoop in, sending me to the Data Detox Bar for guidance from a store “Ingenious” on how to pick up my digital breadcrumbs…or, better yet, not drop them at all.

Now, if I could just get an Ingenious to tag along on my morning commute.

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