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Big Data is watching you

I am in the market for some patio furniture and looked up what was available online. Of course, in the days following that I saw ads for patio furniture popping up all over the place. This tracking of one’s online browsing and using that data to target marketing at you started out being something to be amazed by, then it turned to seeming creepy, and now it seems so routine that we scarcely even give it a thought.

Janet Vertesi, like most of us, had got used to her shopping habits being tracked but this monitoring crossed the line for her “When Google knew I was engaged before anybody else did.” That did it for her and so when she got pregnant, she decided to see if she could hide that fact from big data. Jessica Goldstein interviewed her about all the steps that she took.

Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, had an idea: would it be possible to hide her pregnancy from big data? Thinking about technology—the way we use it and the way it uses us—is her professional life’s work. Pregnant women, she knew, are a marketing gold mine; a pregnant woman’s marketing data is worth 15 times as much as the average person’s. Could Vertesi, a self-declared “conscientious objector” of Google ever since 2012, when they announced to users that they’d be able to read every email and chat, navigate all the human and consumer interactions having a baby would require and keep big data from ever finding out?

Here’s what she found: hiding from big data is so inconvenient and expensive that even Vertesi doesn’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice.

She depended heavily on the use of Tor, saying:

Tor is fantastic. It’s kind of like the old days of the internet, when there wasn’t the whole layer of trackers and sites that could tell who you were and what you’re doing. And with respect to privacy, that was really important to me. Tor made me feel safe. I think that’s really important. It made me feel – it’s a funny thing to say that people always associate Tor with the dark web, but it’s actually not. Tor can be used for a lot of different activities that are not illicit.

What is worse of course is that nowadays with the bizarre idea of ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear from government spying’, taking steps merely to preserve your privacy can actually make you look like a criminal.

Comments

  1. says

    I have a friend who emailed me the other day, with a copy of an email he got from amazon.com suggesting that my birthday was coming up and helpfully including some items from my wish-list.

    It took us a while to figure out how amazon did it: 2 years earlier I had bought a world of warcraft time-card and shipped it to his address. They must have matched the address to his account then decided that we were friends and sent him the tickler.

    Back in the 80s when gayness was more of a secret than it is, now, a friend of mine who worked at AT&T’s research labs wrote a query that scrubbed through the entire customer database and looked for common addresss with more than one phone line under different billing names where the billing names were both typical male or typical female names. Needless to say, it worked extremely well; they never used that data in production, however (mostly because it was useless to a phone company at that time)

    So here’s the question: does it matter?
    Privacy has historically been a matter for the wealthy and powerful. After all, they actually do need to hide their lavish lifestyles and abuses of power from everyone else, so that their peers can’t greedily eye their goods, and the underclass won’t hang them from lampposts. Throughout most of human history, the peasantry (the 90%) have never needed privacy because the only things they have to be private about is how much they drink and who they have sex with. Historically, that’s why the lower class is considered licentious – which is funny – because compared to the upper class, they are not. They’ve just got no privacy about it. The country’s founding fathers were concerned about privacy because they were smugglers, slavers, revolutionaries, and exactly the kind of people who had secrets to keep; if the constitution of the country respects privacy it’s a side-effect of those guys’ desire to protect themselves from eachother.

    If we were able to remove the social stigma from sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, etc, then much of the people’s need for privacy might go away. I mean, so what, who’d care if I was buying sex toys and water pipes or whatever if it wasn’t illegal and/or naughty? Perhaps there actually is merit to the idea that “you don’t keep secrets if you’re not doing anything wrong” but we need to apply that to the people in society who most guard their privacy: the wealthy and powerful. They keep secrets because they are doing something wrong. And government. Why would a ‘democracy’ keep secrets from its people? Well, because the secret at the core of all the others is that the government isn’t a democracy. Government needs privacy in order to thoroughly screw the people and not get caught at it.

  2. colnago80 says

    I don’t know if Prof. Singham remembers this particular episode of the Rockford Files, which he has admitted was one of his favorite programs, but there was a two part episode entitled, The House on Willis Ave., in which a character played by actor Jackie Cooper sets up a massive private data base to spy on practically everyone in the world. Sounds eerily like where we have arrived at today and this episode was aired almost 40 years ago, long before anyone ever heard of the Internet or personnel computers.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    The use of Tor virtually guarantees special attention from NSA, but for Prof. Vertesi that tradeoff may make sense (as compared to 100 spambabies/day smiling out of her inbox), since the spooks don’t sell their harvest to the megacorps.

    Yet.

    These are the good old days…

  4. leni says

    I’m pretty naive about this stuff so it will sound silly, but I was genuinely shocked when a friend sent me an email in which he mentioned that his kid chipped a tooth and I started getting dentist ads everywhere. Immediately.

    It was creepy. No, I have nothing to hide and children’s accidentally chipped teeth aren’t scandalous or illegal (yet), but still, it felt like a an invasion. I know I shouldn’t expect email to be private, but I kind of do. It was as if Google had opened a letter I put in a sealed envelope, transcribed it, taped it closed again, sent it on it’s way and then gleefully advertised their findings to the world. Again, I know that’s not really how it works, but that is very much what it felt like.

    Then again, I don’t know exactly how smart these things are. I made the mistake of Googling Louboutin shoes once and now apparently they think I have $3000 to drop on heals I never wear. So I guess they can’t check your bank balances or get an accurate picture of your actual spending habits. Yet. Though I suppose my lack of taking the Louboutin bait is one more data point to aid their efforts to get that information…

  5. ema says

    So here’s the question: does it matter? … I mean, so what, who’d care if I was buying sex toys and water pipes or whatever if it wasn’t illegal and/or naughty?

    No, not at all.

    Your use of, say, Aldara is neither illegal nor naughty, and of no interest to your boss, family and friends, and all them upstanding Internets strangers.

  6. Scr... Archivist says

    Marcus Ranum @1,

    If we were able to remove the social stigma from sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, etc, then much of the people’s need for privacy might go away.

    The social stigma has already been removed from those things, but not for everyone. Most people don’t care about what you’re up to. But there are a few people who would make a big deal about it, and would try to make other people care. They have conventionalism and conformity on their side.

    Here is an example: http://www.texasobserver.org/he-who-casts-the-first-stone/

  7. Mano Singham says

    @6,

    Wow, those people are something else.

    They are a great example of H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

    David Grisham looks exactly like the type who will get busted soon for doing the kind of things for which he condemns others.

  8. says

    an email in which he mentioned that his kid chipped a tooth and I started getting dentist ads everywhere. Immediately.

    Ah, yes. One side of the conversation was to a gmail address, right?

  9. says

    But there are a few people who would make a big deal about it, and would try to make other people care.

    Yes, that’s a great argument for why privacy matters!

  10. says

    It was as if Google had opened a letter I put in a sealed envelope, transcribed it, taped it closed again, sent it on it’s way and then gleefully advertised their findings to the world.

    Yes, that’s exactly what they did. And they get away with it by burying in their terms of service that they may do something like that.

  11. says

    BTW, stuff like the google stuff isn’t “big data” — the kind of scary “big data” + “government”‘ story people (especially on the right) don’t understand is that the NSA collects web traffic, the government gets banking information, and the postal service gives up shipping data. I assume UPS and FEDEX do, too (since I have not heard anything about them fending off the FBI’s gentle requests) So the kind of data aggregation that is fairly easy is:
    - This particular address got a box marked ORM-D from this particular address
    - The sending address matches the known shipping address of cheaperthandirt.com
    - The recipient address is a private residence
    - The box weighed 20lbs
    Yup, so-and-so just bought 1,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition.

    We tend to focus on the internet but in doing so we forget that banking records, mailing records, etc – are all also going into the big data hopper.

    Next time you drive through a tollway take a careful look for the cameras that are recording your license plate and putting that information into a database that is accessible to the FBI. Ditto if you park in a municipal parking garage at an airport (especially airports!) – your license is being scanned constantly., Now you can see some cop cars that apparently do nothing but drive around scanning license plates, uploading them to a computer, and checking to see if they are on a watch-list. It won’t be long before they’re doing that with faces at airports, too.

    But it’s all to protect you. Really. Don’t worry.

    Joking aside, I don’t see this stuff as a direct threat, yet. What it represents is an unwise aggregation of power into the hands of those who are not particularly likely to discharge that responsibility wisely. Eventually, those reins of power will become so centralized and aggregated that the wrong person steps up and grabs them. I hope to be comfortably dead before then. I don’t think the trajectory for that is in the next 40 years. The next 100, sure. Let me die first, please.

  12. leni says

    One side of the conversation was to a gmail address, right

    Both, actually. Not that it matters.

  13. colnago80 says

    Re Marcus Ranum @ #11

    It’s even worse then that as more and more highway facilities require transducers on the car to access them (e.g. the toll lanes on the Washington Beltway between the Dulles access road and I95/I395. I’m quite sure that there will be pressure building for requiring transducers on cars to access facilities like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and various toll bridges and tunnels (e.g. the Fort McHenry and Baltimore Harbor Tunnels in Baltimore).

  14. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    In Russia data watches you ..

    Hang on!

    Here too!

  15. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    .. & in Star Trek :The Next Generation as well!

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