The Myth Of Opting Out

Princeton sociologist Janet Vertesi tried to keep her pregnancy offline, hidden from “the bots, trackers, cookies and other data sniffers online that feed the databases that companies use for targeted advertising.” Though she steered clear of social media, avoided baby-related credit card purchases, and downloaded Tor to browse the Internet privately, she failed to escape the reach of big data:

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. 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.”

It was no joke that 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, not an excuse for a thousand little trackers to follow me around. But avoiding the big data dragnet meant that I not only looked like a rude family member or an inconsiderate friend, I also looked like a bad citizen.

Her bottom line:

The myth that users will “vote with their feet” is simply wrong if opting out comes at such a high price. … It’s time for a frank public discussion about how to make personal information privacy not just a series of check boxes but a basic human right, both online and off.

In an interview, Vertesi explains why she quit using Google two years ago: “When Google knew I was engaged before anybody else did, that did it for me”:

Google reads your email, reads your chats. It knows what you’re searching for. It sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. And the server is economically incentivized to remember. The way to make money on the internet these days is to get people to exchange personal information for free, and you get them to do that by making them think they’re just interacting with the service: sending an email or searching or chatting with a friend. But there’s this underlying architecture there. …

[This experiment] was one of the first times that I thought about what it would take to opt out from collection. Because you hear all the time: if people don’t like it, they’ll stop using the service. But people don’t stop using the service. And I know a lot of people really don’t like it, and it’s not just that they’re upset because Facebook made some change to its layout. I think the deep, underlying reasons that people are uncomfortable is how these interactions are being tracked. They don’t like being stalked by a pair of shoes they looked at once on the internet two years ago.