Janet Vertesi: Keeping Secrets from Google

Debbie says:

Janet Vertesi, an assistant professor of sociology and a self-described “Google conscientious objector” since 2012, decided to see if she could keep the giant search engine in the sky from learning that she was pregnant. “Pregnant women, she knew, are a marketing gold mine“; Vertesi says that an average person’s marketing data costs a corporation about ten cents, but a pregnant woman’s data costs the same corporation about $1.50.

[My husband and I] decided, first of all, that we’d have to be careful about what we said on social media. [We] also asked our friends and family to be careful. It’s not just about what you say; it’s what your friends say and whether or not they tag you. So we called everyone to say we’re really excited, we have this news, but please don’t put it online. We explained the experiment and said, please don’t put it on Facebook. Because Facebook are the most immediate offenders for data collection.

As a Facebook “conscientious objector” myself, it fascinates me that Vertesi will use Facebook but not Google.

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.

Here are her conclusions:

It was so much work. I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was. It was extremely impractical and very inconvenient, which revealed to me how convenient everyone has made the process of tracking. The notion that, it’s so inconvenient to not be tracked, why would you do it?

It was expensive. If you’re avoiding things like loyalty cards in stores, you’re missing discounts. Buying things in cash in Manhattan, there’s the Manhattan markup to think about. It was inconvenient and not cost-effective. And it was incredibly discomfiting socially, because it was difficult to maintain some regular interactions on social media, on Facebook, without being nervous about being outed.

And finally it was disconcerting because the kinds of things you’re doing are, if it were taken in the aggregate, it looks like we’re up to no good. Who else is on Tor every day and pulling out cash all over the city and taking out enormous gift cards to buy a stroller? It’s the kind of thing, taken in the aggregate, that flags you in law enforcement systems. Fortunately, we never had the FBI show up at our door.I wouldn’t recommend it.

Jessica Goldstein, the interviewer, follows Vertesi’s story down the path of what she thinks is important, what she thinks will happen, why she tried it.  Here’s what Vertesi and Goldstein don’t address:

Vertesi is a privileged person doing a voluntary experiment. If she failed, nothing terrible would happen to her. In fact, she could get in more trouble from succeeding (because, as she says, her experiment makes her look like a criminal) than from failing.

But there are other motives than curiosity and inquiry. She might have an ex-husband who would be legally able to stop the alimony she needed to live if he knew she had another partner; she might have a job that would (illegally) fire her for becoming pregnant; she might have done something illegal (or that could be configured as illegal) and be terrified of giving birth in chains. She might have gender-variant reasons for needing the world not to know that she was female-bodied enough to be pregnant and give birth. She might have a close relative the cops were looking for, and they might come to the hospital where she was giving birth to find that relative. She might be deciding whether or not to have an abortion, in a state where abortion is semi-criminalized.

It’s one thing (and a useful, interesting thing) for a privileged white professor to dip her toes into the water of privacy, and discover that it’s inconvenient, expensive, and potentially risky. It’s one thing to wonder why anyone would go to that much trouble. It’s another thing to extrapolate from Vertesi’s experience into the lives of the millions of people who have something to lose when Google knows their life changes before they do.

We think of the internet as pixels and pictures. We think of privacy in a lot of different ways: we might think that if you’re honest, what do you have to be private about. We might think that Internet privacy is about protecting our credit cards and our bank account information. We might think of privacy as just not wanting to shout our lives from the rooftops (in a day and age when shouting your life from the rooftops is pretty normal behavior). What we usually don’t think about is how internet privacy affects our bodies, what the commercial, capitalist world knows about our bodies, and what danger that puts us in–especially in the areas where we are marginalized or disenfranchised.

At the end of the interview, Vertesi says: “I think our public discourse about technology would be richer if people started to have these conversations.” I can’t agree more; I just want all of to be absolutely committed to ensuring that those conversations include, consider, and involve people for whom the risks are immediate and real, along with folks like Vertesi, for whom it is basically playtime.