Can you really opt out of Big Data?

Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, had heard many people apologize for commercial online surveillance by saying that people who didn't want to give their data away should just not give their data away -- they should opt out. So when she got pregnant, she and her husband decided to keep the fact secret from marketing companies (but not their friends and family). She quickly discovered that this was nearly impossible, even while she used Tor, ad blockers, and cash-purchased Amazon cards that paid for baby-stuff shipped to anonymous PO boxes.

We ordered everything baby-related on Tor. I’ve used a lot of browser plugins and software on my career. A lot of people just asked if I downloaded an ad blocker. But I wasn’t worried about the ads; I was worried about the data collection that fuels the advertising. If I had an ad blocker, I wouldn’t be able to see what the internet knew about me. So we used a traceless browser for baby things. Everything else, I did on my normal browser. We got everything in cash that we could. We’d do research online, using Tor, and then go out and buy things in cash in person. For some purchases online, we made through Amazon, and we set up an Amazon account from a private email account and had it deliver to a local locker in Manhattan, so it wasn’t associated with our address. We stocked it with Amazon gift cards that we bought with cash. So we did those kinds of things to draw a distinction between our online lives and our offline lives.

Meet The Woman Who Did Everything In Her Power To Hide Her Pregnancy From Big Data [Jessica Goldstein/Think Progress]

(Thanks, Alan!)

(Image: pregnant woman, Teza Harinaivo Ramiandrisoa, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. Which reminds me of a joke (with probably the exact same results):

    After enlisting in the army, the guyhad second thoughts about serving so when he was told to bring a urine specimen to the selective service officer, he filled a bottle with specimens from his father, his sister, his dog, and then a bit of his own. Striding confidently into the lab with his specimen bottle, he waited a full hour while the sample was analyzed. Finally, the technician returned. "It took some doing," she said, 'but according to our analysis, your father has herpes, your sister is pregnant, your dog is in heat, and you're in the army."

  2. Amused that on getting to the end of the article, a box slid on from the side of the page inviting me to 'like' it on Facebook...

  3. That just means that they put an entry in their database that you are the type of person who says no to tracking, thus perfect for ads from product X wink

  4. Perhaps jerking off is the better analogy here

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