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Avoiding "Big Data" And Tracking. A Consumer Shares Her Experience

Anyone familiar with the Internet knows that their online activity is tracked by both corporations and governments. Is it possible to avoid all of this tracking? If so, how hard might it be? And, what would you have to do? What would your new life be like?

Author Janet Vertesi attempted to not disclose her pregnancy by opting out of all tracking; both online and in the physical world. We've all heard experts and pundits claim that if you don't like something, simply opt out. Do you think that opting out is possible? If possible, do you think that it would be easy? Would you have to give up your smartphone?

Vertesi's experience is instructive to all of us about the lack of choice consumers really have.

A wide variety of corporations (e.g., advertisers, retailers, banks, online measurement, data brokers, social networking sites, etc.) collect and track consumers' activity, and then resell that data to other companies to generate revenues - a practice called "big data" or data mining. So, Vertesi changed her purchase and online habits in both brick-and-mortar stores and on the Internet. She opted out of all the things that "bid data" use to track consumers.

Could Vertesi go nine months without revealing her pregancy status? Could you? She correctly assumed that avoiding all tracking and data collection would be a challenge:

"... given how hungry marketing companies are to identify pregnant women. Prospective mothers are busy making big purchases and new choices (which diapers? which bottles?) that will become their patterns for the next several years. In the big data era of targeted advertising, detection algorithms sniff out potentially pregnant clients based on their shopping and browsing patterns. It’s a lucrative business..."

Certain purchases (e.g., clothing, foods, medications, etc.) would quickly reveal her pregnancy status. Purchases with payments cards (e.g., credit, debit, and prepaid) would quickly reveal her pregnancy status. She used cash. This meant rejecting loyalty cards, coupon offers, and other incentives. But what about online?

Then, she made her online activity anonymous, since she planned to continue using the Internet:

"Many websites and companies follow you around the Internet, especially baby-related ones. So I downloaded Tor, a private browser that routes your traffic through foreign servers. While it has a reputation for facilitating elicit activities, I used it to visit and to look up possible names... No matter how good the deal, I turned down loyalty card swipes. I even set up an account tied to an email address hosted on a personal server, delivering to a locker, and paid with gift cards purchased with cash."

Next, Vertesi alerted family members and friends not to "out" her pregnancy status on social networking sites, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. All it takes is one "friend" to post a photo online of her baby bump, or post a status message sending, "Congratulations. When are you due?" and her pregnancy is revealed. When a few blabbermouth "friends" outed her anyway, she quickly un-friended them.

Vertesi observed from her experience:

"Internet companies hope that users will not only accept the trade-off between “free” services and private information, but will forget that there is a trade-off in the first place. Once those companies have that personal data, users don’t have any control over where it goes or who might have access to it in the future."

Vertesi learned from her experience:

"Attempting to opt out forced me into increasingly awkward interactions with my family and friends. But, as I discovered when I tried to buy a stroller, opting out is not only antisocial, it can appear criminal... taken together, the things I had to do to evade marketing detection looked suspiciously like illicit activities. All I was trying to do was to fight for the right for a transaction to be just a transaction..."

Vertesi concluded that the control consumers think that they have is really an illusion:

"The myth that users will “vote with their feet” is simply wrong if opting out comes at such a high price. With social, financial and even potentially legal repercussions involved, the barriers for exit are high. This leaves users and consumers with no real choice nor voice to express our concerns."

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series and films, the USS Enterprise-D ship and its crew, led by Captain Jean Luc Picard, encountered an advanced alien race known as the Borg, who operated with a hive mind, and assimilated both other aliens and their technology into the Borg Collective. While Captain Picard and his plucky crew fought off assimilation, during one encounter the Borg claimed:

"Resistance is futile... You will be assimilated."

In today's world, Big Data might as well be the Borg. Is resistance futile? Of course, Big Data proponents want you to believe that resistance is futile. Resistance will be futile, if all programs continue to automatically include consumers whether they want to be or not; and require consumers to opt out. Opt-out resources have been around for many years. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urged companies to design behavioral advertising programs for consumers to opt-in, but didn't require that. So, companies developed contract terms that allow them to automatically collect consumers data with the burden on consumers to continually opt-out (since consumers can be automatically re-included when a retailer changes its terms, services, and/or product features). Hence, we have the Internet you see today... a playing field heavily tilted towards corporations and away from consumers.

Is this a real choice for consumers? Is this real control for consumers? I think not, and I'll bet that you think not, too.

If this bothers you (and I truly hope that it does bother you), contact your elected officials and demand stronger privacy laws and trade laws. Demand that laws require companies to get consumers' permission first before any data collection. Make opt-in the standard.

What's your opinion?


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Chanson de Roland

Vertesi’s story is illuminating, but she really never had a chance. For example, if she ordered any prescription drug related to her pregnancy, pursuant to a holding of the U.S. Supreme Court, the pharmacy can share that information with the maker of the drug, which then has little restriction on how it uses the knowledge of her pregnancy.

The fundamental problem is this: How did our personal information cease to be ours? We no longer have any property rights in our personal data, of which we, each of us, are the sole and exclusive authors by and through the actions of our individual lives. Google, data brokers, Facebook, and their ilk don't author our personal information, nor does any government. Yet that information, about where we are, who we communicate with, and all the other information which makes up our lives and which defines who we are, belongs to Google and its ilk! Or to government intelligence agencies! And there is no longer any reasonable dispute that clever analysis of our personal information reveals our most intimate details. So we don't have any property rights in our personal information. How did that happen? How did the information that we write by living cease to be ours?

Well, there is the problem of determining the origin of property rights in the common law. As a law professor of mine once said: the common law is pretty good at transferring property rights, but it often fails at determining the origin of those rights. But there are some principles to guide us, and they clearly demonstrate that the information which we author by living is ours.

The law is clearest about the origin of rights in intangible property when it comes to invention and authorship: He, who authors, since the Statute of Ann, is the owner of what he authors. Each of us solely and exclusively authors our personal information, so each of us, therefore, should own our personal information. Any law to the contrary unconstitutionally deprives us of our property rights in our personal information. Thus, those who take our personal information without our license to do so violate our property rights and arguably our copyright in our personal information. Therefore, Google and its ilk misappropriate and infringe on our rights in our personal information to the extent that they take and use it without our license to do so.

To remedy the massive violations of our property rights in our personal information, let us begin by acknowledging that we, each of us, as the authors of our personal information, owns our personal information and that others may not collect or use it without our freely and fairly negotiated license to do so.

R Michelle Green

If there is information available to be mined, it will be mined. Vertesi's story is quite the cautionary tale, but does show me that it will take far more fortitude and conscientiousness than I have to follow her path.

You could put so much contradictory info out there that you are unwittingly anonymized. When I buy things for others the net doesn't always know it's for others, and markets it to me....


Thanks for the comment. The key question: SHOULD it take so much "fortitude and conscientiousness" to remain anonymous online and offline? In the European Union, it is called, "The right To Be Forgotten." see:

Internet Privacy - The Right To Be Forgotten

Europe's 'Right to Be Forgotten' Should Terrify U.S. Tech Companies

Or, as one reader described it: online users in the USA have no property rights to own and control their sensitive personal information.


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