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.