Who is watching you?
One thing we’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the way in which you’re never alone on the internet. Whatever you are doing, digitally (and yes, your loyalty card is digital), you’re being watched, tracked, and data-harvested. Various aspects of this pop up all the time: from cookie permissions that you have to tick to get to the page, to the ubiquitous targeted ads, to the recent development of polite requests to turn off your ad-blocking plugin, we are constantly reminded that our job is to be consumers.
As Madhumita Venkataramanan wrote last year in Wired magazine:
Even as you’re reading this — you may be sedentary, but your smartphone can reveal your location and even your posture — your life is being converted into… a data package; once it has been compiled into lists (interested in technology, subscribes to magazines, probably male, professional, high earner) by intermediaries known as data brokers, it’s sold on to data aggregators and analysts and eventually any company. Ultimately, you are the product.
This is a common statement about social media. No less august a body than the EU itself recently issued a warning: ‘Leave Facebook if you don’t want to be spied on‘. They were talking not about shopping, but about the American NSA gathering data from citizens of other countries in the name of security. And America isn’t the only country that’s doing it. Web journalist Jacob Silverman coined a phrase – ‘open-source intelligence‘ – to describe how ‘secret services around the world’ are ‘mining social media and other public forums’ for data – data which we, all of us, rush to provide.
Janet Vertesi, an expectant mum, conducted an experiment: she would try to keep her pregnancy secret from all the online marketers. Her marker of success was never to have an ad for baby or pregnancy goods targeted at her. She quickly found out that was going to be even harder than it sounded, ‘given how hungry marketing companies are to identify pregnant women‘. Suffice to say that when she bought gift vouchers with cash one time too many, for buying things anonymously online, she ended up being threatened with the police.
For months I had joked to my family that I was probably on a watch list for my excessive use of Tor and cash withdrawals. But then my husband headed to our local corner store to buy enough gift cards to afford a stroller listed on Amazon. There, a warning sign behind the cashier informed him that the store “reserves the right to limit the daily amount of prepaid card purchases and has an obligation to report excessive transactions to the authorities.”
But what difference do your details make to anyone? There are millions of us – surely little old you can’t be that special. Vertesi’s link, above, is a chilling description of how minute the retailers’ interest in you is. John Naughton, in the Guardian, explains how you can see it in action for yourself:
If you want to get a sense of what drives this, install theGhostery plug-in for your browser and then go and visit some of the sites you normally access. I’ve just looked up one at random – reed.co.uk, which describes itself as “the UK’s #1 job site”. It has 10 trackers at the landing-page level, but when you search for particular jobs in a particular location the number of trackers explodes. A search for “software architect” in Cambridge, for example, produces a page with 28 trackers.
There are various steps you can take to minimise your trackability. You can tick the ‘surf anonymously’ box in your browser – but if your browser is run by a large search engine, you might wonder whether it’s really in their interests to make you truly anonymous. You can install AdBlocker or another ad-blocking browser plugin. But websites are catching onto this. We admit that we were charmed by the beautifully graphic haiku someone had thought to write for the Forbes website, but it also shows how very much they want you to let the ads in. In any case, blocking ads solves only one problem. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean they’re not doing it.
And if none of this feels like enough, you can always just get rid of all your loyalty cards, pay only cash for goods, and stay completely off the web.
Good luck with that.