What Will Become Of Your Digital Footprint?

By Tong Sun

(From the editor: This article was published on the Wired Innovation Insights blog.)

Have you heard the credit card commercial that asks, “what’s in your wallet?” Before long, the answer is going to be “you.”

As our digital footprint grows, I see personal information becoming a form of digital currency – something that an individual person owns, controls and uses in exchange for “personalized” goods and services.

An estimated 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone; 87 percent use the Internet and about 74 percent of those users participate in social media, according to the Pew Research Internet Project.

A New Way to Look at Your Data

Tong Sun, Director, Scalable Data Analytics Research Lab at PARC, A Xerox Company
“Companies make money by selling or sharing the digital data left behind by these users. I see a future where the model is flipped.” Tong Sun, director of Scalable Data Analytics Research Lab at PARC, A Xerox Company

Across the globe today, companies make money by selling or sharing the digital data left behind by these users. I see a future where the model is flipped – a world where consumers are in control of their own data and approve its release and use for personal benefits or for social good.

What data are we talking about? Take a minute to think about your online accounts and activities. You will be surprised at the length of the list: email; social media; web history; services such as television cable, electric power, cell phones; online banking; credit cards; apps such as game sites and coupons; even location data from your cell phone and GPS device. In addition to all that, a lot of information is preserved on private data servers, such as electronic health records.

Today, much of this digital information is not under your control.  For example, you “trade” information with an email provider to create an email account. But it’s hard to know how that service provider will, in turn, use your information. Once you provide the data points, they are out of your hands. In the future, I see consumers having a better understanding of how information is collected, who accesses it and what it’s used for. I also think they will have a lot more say in how it is used.

Your Digital Footprint “Wallet” Tracks and Controls Your Data

Let’s say I want to work with my physician on a family healthcare plan. In addition to my family’s healthcare records, technology will make it possible for us to share lifestyle information such as what items we bought while grocery shopping during the past month; our exercise routine; what places we visited and what websites we surfed. All of this information will help the doctor make more precise recommendations about our family’s health and wellness. We also could opt to share the data (after being anonymized) to help the Center for Disease Control and Prevention track and control epidemics.

How will this happen? I envision a digital footprint “wallet” that tracks and controls my data, recommending what, when, and how it can be used to benefit me, my friends and family, or society. For example, let’s say I want to book a family vacation to an exotic place, and need help making arrangements. My digital assistant may suggest I trade three months’ worth of my Facebook data for the travel booking services. It can also tell the travel agent my preferences, so the trip is customized.

Or, perhaps my digital assistant will ask me if I want to share my shopping history with a store to get recommendations from their fall line (no, I do not) or share my water bill history with a drought prevention group looking to understand usage patterns (yes, I do).

There are many technological and psychological factors we have to overcome before this approach becomes possible. User privacy, data security and consumer education are three areas I see advancing quickly. It could be that the digital wallet leads to digital pickpockets, as well!

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Tong Sun is an expert in using data to discover better ways of doing things and predict “what would happen if …” A principal scientist at PARC, A Xerox Company, she leads a research lab focused on discovering new insights from social media mining big data computing.

Her work helps translate data into practical intelligence that is advantageous for businesses and other organizations.  Her team’s research helps identify opportunities where Xerox can better serve customers and examines how we can meet customer needs in customer care, retail, transportation, healthcare, and beyond.

We asked Xerox people

Every day, many digital services collect your “digital footprint.” Who should own this data?





As your digital footprint grows, are you excited or worried about how it will be used?

Most people who responded to our survey were wary about how their digital footprints might be used in the future. They envisioned scenarios where too much information about individual lifestyle and habits could make life more difficult.

Companies might engage in “extreme marketing that severely tests an individual’s sense of restraint,” such as advertising casinos to those who display characteristics of chronic gamblers. When applying for a job or a loan, could data – such as “what you purchase, what you do for entertainment … even what your kids have posted on social media” – be used against you?  In the same vein, could digital footprints be used to “profile individuals” with labels such as “terrorist” or “large debt” – and, if so, who “cleans up the mess” and helps put lives back in order when there is an error?

Worse yet, will we be treated as an item to trade rather than an individual?  “I don’t want my information and identity traded around like a commodity.  I am not a number, but I am becoming one.”

Others envisioned how data footprints could benefit society, pointing out that “data is valuable, whether it is used for good or evil.”  With the right data in hand, “illegal and unethical practices could be exposed” and criminal activity thwarted.  Collectively, we could “use information to make the world a better place.”  “My input [could be] considered to aid future advancements, improvements, and innovations.”  Over time, if “technology advances to the point where the necessities of my life, errands and luxuries are … automated,” “it could make our lives so much easier.”

And while most see digital footprints as a security threat, one individual envisioned a new kind of protection against information theft.  “What if someone creates a ‘signature’ or digital ID for every piece of [information an individual creates]. Then a monitoring mechanism tracks the sale or use of that information, and a micro-cent of royalty accrues to an individual’s account.”

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  1. silvestre February 4, 2015 - Reply

    good program

  2. […] Most Millennials have had a digital footprint since age two, and the first generations of humans to lay down a digital existence since birth already grace this planet. It’s interesting to think about this symbiotic relationship we’ve created with data, to think about humans before, during, and after the technological revolution. Some think that we’ll become so inextricably intertwined with our digital footprints that we’ll start using our data as currency, stored in a sort of digital footprint wallet. […]

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