“What do they have on me?”: explore the scary limits of data collection in design with Data Aeternum
One New York-based designer publishes a 40-page FBI dossier on his life in public data, warning designers about sobering practices such as dark UX patterns.
- Liz Gorny
- 3 August 2022
There have been mounting discussions around “responsible design” for some time in the industry. Although, less often is it spoken about through the lens of data. Design usually lives on or at least engages directly with platforms that, as designer Shivam Sinha puts it, “harvest our data every day”. Equally, while the term data privacy is frequently bandied about, Shivam states internet users often “don’t even understand the data they are willingly giving away”. He adds: “After all, when do we ever see or interact with this data?”
Shivam is seeing it. In fact, he has just requested reels of his own data from various social platforms for two companion projects: Data Dossier and Data Aeternum. The former is made to show audiences the frightening extent of data collection in online designed spaces, while the latter is about how we can stop it.
Data Aeternum is an interactive website and handbook where readers can get actionable advice on data privacy. This is crucial for designers, many of whom are working directly with questionable data practices, perhaps without even realising it. “It’s imperative that we take a stance against dark UX patterns," he says. These are tricks used within the design of many sites and apps to make users buy or sign up to something without meaning to. While users are constantly giving away data for free – for example, to pharmaceutical companies “selling your eating habits”, Shivam says – designers can act as a line of defence for the public, but only if they properly understand privacy regulations.
Not only has Shivam packed Data Aeternum with useful information around the subject, he also wants to provoke users “into action”. Firstly, there is the hero interaction users are met with – an interactive screen of tracking eyes. The work references a company that specialises in “watching you" (i.e. collecting your data), and it’s a reminder of the onslaught of data brokers on the internet. “A more notable element on the site is the Data Portrait generator, which allows the user to generate a portrait of themselves to see how much data they’re giving away,” Shivam explains. By dragging and dropping your downloaded data from GDPR tools, Shivam can generate a portrait which maps your data to produce your image. “Here, I don’t even need the user to upload an image of themselves; chances are, it’s already part of their data archive.”
The accompanying Data Dossier, an eery 40-page document, is a disturbing summary of Shivam’s life and personality made solely using his data points. For the design of the dossier, Shivam discusses drawing from FBI documents and ASCII code to simulate a “cold, confusing and alienating” look. Tron Legacy is also a reference point for its futuristic interface designs, and Ross MacDonald – “who designs and fabricates props for movies and television series” – says Shivam. Armed with these intersecting aesthetics, Shivam hopes to ultimately push the reader to question: “What do they have on me?” Though impactful, the project would be just as urgent without these touches. The cold hard truth is sobering enough.
Shivam Sinha: Data Dossier (Copyright © Shivam Sinha, 2022)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, she worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.