Tools and apps that reveal your digital shadow

Tactical Tech logoWhen ever we use our phone or go online, information is collected about us all. But most of us have little understanding about exactly what information we are giving away and how it is being used. The following tools and apps have been recommended by Tactical Tech to help you explore and expose your own digital shadow.

Trace My Shadow
“Trace My Shadow” is an interactive visualisation that can help you learn about the effects of using online services and devices. Select what device you are using – a computer that has a Microsoft operating system, an Android mobile phone – and then what you are using it for: Google services, Facebook, or online banking. You will then be able to see how each device and each activity leaves its traces. For example, let’s say you are using a mobile phone with a prepaid SIM card to create and use a Facebook account. Trace My Shadow will list 26 separate traces about yourself. Once you have checked the boxes indicating what you do when you are surfing the web, the tool will also give you tips how to reduce your shadow, and much more.

How grabby are your Facebook apps?
This interactive visualisation was published by the Wall Street Journal in 2012. It’s an analysis of 101 Facebook applications and it lists which data they collect from its users’ profiles. With one click you learn that Foursquare has access to 15 types of personal data, including your birthday (which can increase the threat of ID theft).

My Permissions
My Permissions is an application that shows how many third party apps can access information from your social networking profiles like Facebook, but also Flickr, Foursquare or even Dropbox. Once you have installed it, it shows which other apps you have installed and asks you to review the permissions they have, to access your data. Do they know your location? Can they access your information all the time, even when you have logged out of the accounts, or post in your name?  Once you know,  you are given the option to decide which apps to remove, add to the list of trusted apps or report any abuse of your permissions.

If you want to find out more about how and which third party applications interact with websites that you visit, you can install Lightbeam, an app for the Firefox browser. What’s interesting to see is how advertising companies follow you across different websites. Either with the help of cookies (little text files you download when you visit websites that store information about your browsing behaviour) or through the unique ‘fingerprint’ your browser leaves on their server, they know that in the morning you read several news websites (and what articles you’re interested in), later that you research specific topics and that you spend quite a bit of time browsing through online shops selling hiking shoes.

But how can someone identify you if you don’t log into that news website and you don’t fill in any personal information? This is increasingly being done by organisations looking at what is called the browser fingerprint: the combination of special characteristics of your browser, the combination of information that travels from your computer to the server that hosts the website you are looking at. This information is what’s most valuable to the advertising companies and possibly also for law enforcement agencies that attempt to collect as much information as possible to be able to detect unusual patterns which look suspicious.


Panopticlick by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a website that offers to analyse your browser fingerprint. The idea behind it is to give you an idea of how unique your fingerprint is even though you might think that you’re not using anything that’s very different from the software and devices most everybody else seems to be using. What makes your browser unique is the variety of information:  the time zone and language you chose in the settings, which browser plugins you have installed, which fonts are installed and whether you accept cookies or not.

Who has your back 2013?
A different service by the EFF is a chart called Who Has Your Back explaining how 18 popular internet companies reacted to government requests for user data. Some of them stand up for their users’ right to privacy in courts – but not the majority of them. If you want to find out whether your favourite services publish a transparency report that documents whether they’ll go out of their way to protect your privacy, have a look here.

Data Dealer
If you like games and want to learn about who is interested in your data and what they it’s being used for, have a look at “Data Dealer”. The educational game puts you in the role of an unscrupulous “data dealer” who is out to collect your personal data. In the course of the playable demo, you will learn what type of data is being collected and how it information can b used to generate profit.

What they know
What they know is another interactive data visualisation by the Wall Street Journal that shows you the behaviour of the most popular smartphone apps both for iPhones and Android phones. It tells you which apps give your information to marketing companies and describes what each app told users about the information it gathered. You can find out also about smaller companies that don’t usually get so much attention. You will learn about what YouTube and Tweetdeck might know about you, also the New York Times app and Angry Birds. Click a specific app in the chart to find more detailed information.

iPhone Tracker
The iPhone Tracker is an open source application you can install on a Mac, iPhone or iPad. It will use the information about your movements already stored in your iPhone and display them on a map.  (A well known example of looking at the metadata of a mobile phone is a visualisation by a German politician in 2010, Tell-all telephone, which shows how much can be seen in such seemingly innocent bits of information).


Screenshot showing map with locations

Creepy gives you exact location data from tweets and photos

Another tool that uses maps to demonstrates the importance of location data is Creepy. Many tools and social networking platforms ask you for permission to use your geo-location data: information about where you were when you took a photo or published a Tweet. Creepy presents this information about you or other users in a map. You can see over a specific period of time where you, or others, took pictures that were published later. Unless you actively turn the geo-location feature off, this information is available to anyone who is interested in finding out how, where and when you are spending your time.

This information was taken from the post “How can I learn more about my own shadow” produced as part of the Me and My Shadow project by Tactical Technology Collective. The post was made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Some of the information has been abridged to suit the length of this particular post.

Edited by Kate Hairsine



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