Design

What Your “Algorithmic Citizenship” Says About Your Web Habits

by Rafi Schwartz

June 2, 2015
image via citizen ex

Despite all the time we spend online, many—if not most—of us are woefully underinformed when it comes to the internet’s basic structure. What, for example, do we mean when we say we’re “visiting” a website? Can browsing the internet cause us to cross physical international boundaries, simply by clicking our way from site to site? How does our nationality affect the way we experience cyberspace, and, in turn, the way cyberspace regards us as users? 

These are the questions raised by Citizen Ex, a new project from British author and technologist James Bridle. Co-comissioned by the Southbank Art Centre and The Space, a partnership between the Arts Council England, and the BBC, Bridle’s Citizen Ex is a browser plug-in that shows users the countries in which the websites they visit actually reside.

The Citizen Ex homepage explains: 

Every time you connect to the internet, you pass through time, space, and law. Information is sent out from your computer all over the world, and sent back from there. This information is stored and tracked in multiple locations, and used to make decisions about you, and determine your rights. These decisions are made by people, companies, countries and machines, in many countries and legal jurisdictions. Citizen Ex shows you where those places are.

Your Algorithmic Citizenship is how you appear to the internet, as a collection of data extending across many nations, with a different citizenship and different rights in every place. One day perhaps we will all live like we do on the internet. Until then, there's Citizen Ex.

The concept of Algorithmic Citizenship is what’s truly at the heart of Citizen Ex. By highlighting the nation of origin for each of the websites a user visits, Citizen Ex offers a snapshot of how that person’s internet usage is viewed by web-services, companies, and even governments. Again, the Citizen Ex homepage: 

More often, your Algorithmic Citizenship is decided without you being aware of the decision, or the consequences. Government surveillance agencies like the NSA and GCHQ use your Algorithmic Citizenship to decide whether to spy on you. For example, the NSA is not allowed to spy on US citizens, so they use browsing data to assign a percentage score to everyone on the internet. If that score drops below 50% American, then they can record them: different laws apply to them, even if they don't know anything about them except how they behave online. This is also Algorithmic Citizenship.

After downloading the Citizen Ex browser extension, users are given a simple breakdown of their browsing habits based on the countries hosting the websites that user visits. It’s a revelatory peek at not only personal usage trends, but at how—and where, physically in the world, as opposed to abstract cyberspace—the internet functions.

image via citizen ex

Beyond personal usage, however, Citizen Ex also seeks to educate and explore the stories behind certain internet nationalities. To that end, the site is in the process of publishing a series of essays examining six top-level domains, starting with Scotland’s “.scot,” and ending with the Cayman Island’s “.cym.” 

Will tracking your algorithmic citizenship change your browsing habits? Perhaps. Or perhaps it will simply help you understand the digital pathways that take us all across borders and through nations, as we continue to shop, chat, learn, and live online. Either way, it offers a unique look at the mechanized workings of the digital world in which we’ve immersed ourselves, often without any idea of what that truly entails. 

Citizen Ex is free to download for the Chrome, Safari, and Firefox web browsers. To learn more about the project, including how the service keeps your data secure (in short, data is entirely anonymized, and stored locally on your device and your device only), visit Citizen-Ex.com

Happy informed browsing!

[via motherboard]

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What Your “Algorithmic Citizenship” Says About Your Web Habits