How would you feel if a large corporation knew more about your personal life than your friends and family? I’ve got some news for you: they already do. Companies like Target, Amazon, Google, and Facebook collect every seemingly innocuous scrap of information they can get about you and with it, they target you with ads and coupons, hoping to get you to buy, buy, buy. It seems fairly harmless, and as is the case with Google, you get a boatload of completely free services in exchange for a few ads targeted at you—not that big of a deal, right? Targeted ads can seem innocent enough, until they affect your personal life.
According to a New York Times story released in 2012, massive retailer Target actually found out a woman was pregnant before she had told her family. The young woman, who was still in high school, was placed on a list designed for pregnant mothers after her purchases—which were consistent with other expectant mothers—gave her a high enough “pregnancy score” to prompt Target’s system to send her coupons and other marketing materials. One newsletter congratulating her on her pregnancy landed in the hands of her father, who was angry at Target for sending these materials to his young daughter. After a discussion with his daughter, he found out that Target actually knew more about his daughter than he did.
This is just one example of how companies learn about you based on your behavior, and for some, this isn’t ideal. Janet Vartesi, a professor of Sociology at Princeton, falls in this category. She looks at the ways in which our social lives are affected by technology, and the various moral implications new technologies can have on the world. Her latest scheme to bring awareness to some of these implications was documented in a recent interview with Think Progress. Inspired by the New York Times article I mentioned, Vartesi tried to hide her pregnancy from the Internet and forces like Google, Facebook, and other info-harvesters. Ultimately, she wanted to pose a question: can you hide big news from big data?
Since she isn’t the only one capable of spilling the beans online, she told her friends and family about her pregnancy by phone and asked them not to share anything about it online, which was tricky for some of her family, especially where Facebook is concerned, because it’s a particularly tough place to keep things private. People willingly and openly give personal information to Facebook as they build their profiles, but it doesn’t stop there. Facebook tracks all communications between people whether it’s on their wall, through chat, or direct messages. Vartesi had a tough time explaining this to relatives and although she was careful about the news, she still had friends and family sending messages to her Facebook inbox and through the chat feature, a place not visible to the public eye, but still under Facebook’s prying eye. Her relatives, it seems, didn’t think much about the fact that Facebook is always watching.
The solution would seem fairly simple: don’t use the Internet. But those of you reading this know that these days that’s nearly impossible. Vartesi herself needed to use the net to research and purchase maternity items—activities that would get retailers like Amazon drooling, especially when information on pregnant mother’s is so valuable—they buy a lot of things for their new family additions.
In order to keep herself from being flagged by places like Amazon, she used anonymous browsing tool Tor to keep her online browsing private while researching baby products. If she needed to make a purchase, she either did so in person with cash (retailers often track who you are by info tied to the credit cards you use), or by using Amazon gift cards with a dummy account and email address.
Vartesi found that yes, she was able to keep things on the down-low, for the most part, but she also reported that it was more expensive (living in Manhattan she found prices for in-person purchases much higher than online purchases), and takes a lot more effort. For most people, she told Think Progress, it’s simply not worth the trouble.
Keeping information from these info-hungry giants is becoming more difficult each passing day, but Vartesi would argue that although this is happening, you can still think critically about technology and information harvesting. Opting out of every service you use just because they gather your information might not be feasible, but you can at least make careful decisions about which companies’ services to use, and only select those who have policies you can agree with.