August 24, 2011

Do Not Track

by with 5 comments

I remember the chills that ran up my spine and the quickening of my heartbeat when I realized someone was following me in the grocery store. It was an initial exchange of smiles in the produce section that turned into multiple disturbing encounters throughout the store. I was deciding between various flavors of rice when I noticed he was standing by the pastas. I was reading the nutritional content on a container of yogurt and noticed he was peering over at me from the jugs of milk. This continued on.

It was broad daylight and there were plenty of people milling around so I didn’t feel terribly threatened, just totally creeped out. Did this person think he knew me? Was he working up the courage to ask me out? Or was he evaluating how a fit 34-year old mom kept her kitchen stocked? Whatever the motivation – innocent, vicious, or somewhere in between – this person was invading my space. I didn’t give him permission to accompany me. I wasn’t followed out of the store but I did leave feeling violated.

When I became aware of the online companies that have been tracking what I read, watch, and listen to – I was overcome with a similar feeling as I described above. One Sunday morning, I overheard a debate on a news show on this very subject. One gentleman was pointing to Facebook and how their users are volunteering their information; therefore, the personal data is fair game and the company has a right to it. But the last time I checked my account settings, the update I chose to share with my select circle of friends was intended for them, not for everyone who has a Facebook account, and not for the people who work at Facebook, and certainly not for the creepy guy in the grocery store.

A month or so ago, I received the announcement from Groupon, the deal-of-the-day discount site, regarding its new partnership with Expedia and its updated privacy policy which includes sharing my information between the companies such as my birth date, where I reside, where I’ve traveled – even my current location should I use it’s mobile application. Hmmm, all this in the spirit of more customized deals? I’m getting those chills again…

Had I found the manager of the grocery store that day and reported what I was experiencing, I’m 100% confident he would have personally escorted my stalker out the door. Perhaps a security guard or police officer would have gotten involved. I find it unsettling that companies are now helping themselves to this data without so much as asking – not dissimilar to those spying eyes. Is it necessary to better understand me as a customer? Would they send better deals my way?

Herein lies the real dilemma. It is easy enough to shop at a different market as there are plenty around the city. And if I can’t find the exact item I like then so be it. However, am I supposed to completely disengage from sites like Facebook and/or Groupon? Is that possible? Realistic? The larger companies like these get, the more complicated these privacy issues become. What do you think?

  1. Great article, Linzi!

    You know – because the Internet is global, potentially anonymous and always on, the temptation to inflate one’s profile or create a different persona is easy. However, the more details revealed to a digital stranger increases the likelihood of a negative experience.

    Companies have set it up perfectly to gather as much information about a user as possible and make it OK because the user is getting something in return. Like a Groupon deal… or points/deals when you check in on Foursquare/Facebook. I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid "stalking" from companies with smart phones and other clever ways companies gather information through the use of apps.

    Some people just don't care. They just say "it is going to happen anyway. What do I have to hide…" I do think it is possible to disengage from these sites but at this point, I am not so sure it is realistic. We live in a connected world. One way or the other, your information is online and will be tracked. I'm just glad companies like SpiderOak have a zero-knowldge policy :-)

  2. especially over at facebook, the price you pay for *any* return I can imagine is far, far too high, to say the least. Your "social graph" is the most personal, intimite and valuable thing you own that can be digitally represented. This stuff defines who you are more than you understand yourself. It is really dangerous to hand that over to a single, closed company but millions of people do it.

    It's realistic to completely disengage from facebook. In fact, if an open and secure web that serves *you*, means anything to you, you have no choice. In return, you get the good feeling of staying true to yourself :)

  3. I think there's a large and growing divide between generations regarding the value of privacy, and perhaps this is the case here. However if you are in public, I think it only reasonable that people can observe you, and unless they're threatening you, there's no reason they should be disallowed to follow you. I can imagine a world where you can't look a shopkeep in the eye while paying, for fear of being arrested for harassment.

    I don't think we can abandon all hope of privacy, and certainly you're not the only one concerned, but the example you give strikes me as overly protective. Nobody should be removed from a store because another customer doesn't like being looked at. Guess what? That same store has CCTV covering every aisle from multiple angles. One may argue that your stalker is doing you a favor by removing the illusion of privacy.

    The novel "The light of other days" comes to mind (recommended reading if you're interested in this stuff). In the book it becomes possible for anybody to see what anybody else is doing – or has done in the past. The effects on society are largely negative, however it raises questions as to where it's reasonable to protect privacy, and where we can benefit from being more open. I'm also reminded of discussions I've had with various Asian friends, contrasting the interactions between adults and children in different parts of the world. This hardly needs more detailed explanation; in Europe or particularly America, everything is seen as "potential pervert". In some places you won't be stopped if you circle a child with a camera (and, although that's a bit weird, there is no reason it should be forbidden). Conversely, after moving to America, one friend was shocked to be frowned at for greeting a child.

    If you don't want people to know where you've been, you can take the Dropbox approach and hope nobody looks, or the SpiderOak approach and wear a mask. Personally I think there's a limit to the privacy that can be achieved through writing out laws, and people who want the extended privacy that you desire will have to take their own measures. Unfortunately masking your appearance isn't really a viable approach, but as I say, there is a generation divide, and I hope in the future we will be more relaxed about what we consider to be violation of personal space.

  4. I don't use Facebook for this very reason. I've even heard that the justice system will subpoena a person's Facebook account history into court these days.