Internet privacy and the market for your information

| March 11, 2013
Photo of computer servers.

Technology and privacy can sometimes seem like they’re locked in a zero-sum game.

Telescopes may have been invented to gaze at the stars, but they also gave peeping toms the ability to invade privacies from a comfortable distance, rather than just window-adjacent tree branches. And although outdoor security cameras were an achievement in the durability of electronics, they raise major privacy concerns that rage to this day. Google street view took away the anxiety of finding a new address, but it also froze and publicized private moments, making people feel like they couldn’t stand on the street stuffing a pizza into their face outside 555 Main Street without getting caught. Or worse.

And the internet, one of the most incredible technological innovations ever, is also one of the most pernicious tools for violating our privacy.

Ever used Spokeo? If not, look up your name and brace yourself for a creepy eye-opener. Then immediately go about privatizing your information.

Innocuously called “analytics,” the mining of user data is already a massive industry. There are data brokers and marketing specialists. The industry (and perceptions of it) have matured enough to catalyze a $1 million public relations campaign, poised to make the idea of data collection more appealing.

Often, analytics translates to more targeted ads. By analyzing a person’s search or online purchasing history, ads can be tailored so that teenagers don’t have to see ads for denture cream. This seems convenient, and may make for a better ad experience for the viewers, and a more efficient way for companies to spend money.

A person typing on a keyboard

Careful what you type. Photo by Nicke L, used under a Creative Commons license.

But why stop there? The sheer amount of information we transmit every time we enter a search term, visit a site or make an online purchase is fruit too low, plentiful and ripe not to be picked. Target was already the subject of an investigation published by the New York Times, about how they use customers’ buying habits to predict purchases.

Special efforts went into capturing data of when a woman was expecting a child — prime time for making a million purchases, from maternity pants to diapers, every week. Catch them early, the corporate reasoning goes, and they’ll keep coming back to Target throughout the entire season of the rapid consumption that comes with new parenting.

Retail stores are shockingly good at gathering and analyzing information. Did a woman buy a pregnancy test, followed by a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, and some pastel blue carpet? Send her coupons for maternity clothes! Coupon campaigns would be targeted to each stage of pregnancy. Seven months after Target figured out that a woman pregnant, they’d send coupons for cribs, nine months later came coupons for infant diapers and baby bottles.

The result was while many people got great deals, many also got creeped out. Having a kid is a private, personal thing, and women didn’t really want Target knowing things they didn’t tell them. They didn’t like the feeling of being watched.

Sign reading Security notice private property keep out

Mining someone’s personal data can feel nearly as invasive as physical trespassing (via

Many companies, like, a personal finance website that peeks into your bank account then makes colorful pie charts of what you’re spending/wasting your money on, give their service away for free in exchange for your data. The data is made anonymous, but that $0 price tag doesn’t mean they’re getting nothing for letting you use their service — they’re selling your data to companies who will use the information to make money.

What these companies do however, isn’t illegal in most states. Like a greasy middle aged man with a packed lunch on his lap, grinning at you from a park bench across the way, data mining is creepy but it doesn’t break any laws. At least not yet.


Category: News, Trespassing