Over the weekend, Mashable surfaced the story of Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University who set out to ensure that her pregnancy was kept secret from social media and specifically Facebook. Ms Vertesi told her story at Theorizing The Web an eclectic event covering topics such as geography, the workplace, sex (that as well!!) and both big and small data.
The steps she took in what she describes as an 'infrastructural inversion' designed to draw a line between her online and offline lives make even the most paranoid seem tame.
No mentions on any social media. Apart from one congratulatory private message on Facebook by an uncle in Sydney Australia that resulted in her deleting the thread of conversations and unfriending him, extensive use of Tor, a service than can shield your identity provided it is properly configured, only communicating via secure email, no use of credit cards for baby goods - the list goes on.
One interesting aside in this story:
Vertesi said that by dodging advertising and traditional forms of consumerism, her activity raised a lot of red flags. When her husband tried to buy $500 worth of Amazon gift cards with cash in order to get a stroller, a notice at the Rite Aid counter said the company had a legal obligation to report excessive transactions to the authorities.
"Those kinds of activities, when you take them in the aggregate ... are exactly the kinds of things that tag you as likely engaging in criminal activity, as opposed to just having a baby," she said.
Which must count as borderline bonkers.
The real surprise to me centers around the Facebook element. It turns out that private messages may be private between the connected parties but from Facebook's perspective, they still form part of your personal social graph and therefore up for grabs with advertisers. Hence Ms Vertesi's actions in deleting the thread which discussed her pregnancy.
Beneath the humor in this story, Ms Vertesi makes important points about how interactions can be tracked and traced for the purpose of long term economic interests and how, in her words, we are moving to a world where computer bots are taking on the characteristics of social surveillance.
The market answer is always the same: if people don't like what they see happening then they'll opt out. They'll find another service. But is that true? She goes on to make the point using her own example that if by opting out, you run the risk of being labeled anti-social or perhaps even criminal then those disincentives may well be enough to keep people locked into the very services that are surveilling our lives. In her view:
"We are no longer talking about a free market but about coercion...and we need technologies to respect the fact that it is just a transaction."
The guy from Facebook (whose name I didn't catch, but comes in around 47 minutes) gave the pat answer that privacy is no longer possible but that loss has benefits in the form of targeted advertising because
"We want targeted adverts..and because it is so integrated into our lives that we don't really have the option to opt out."
The speaker then drifts off into a fluffy argument about government incentives to keep the nation safe while corporations need to make money. Interestingly, he also said that in a study undertaken during his time at Yahoo! they found that the overwhelming response to paying for the service if it meant no targeted advertising was a big fat zero.
It wasn't made clear when that survey was undertaken but I am betting that if that question was asked today, people would be prepared to pay for services if it meant they no longer have to endure the endless stream of so-called targeted advertising.
Putting that aside, I found the most interesting comment on this broad topic coming from Kate Crawford of Microsoft Research who argued that what we're really seeing is the co-mingling of issues around security and commercially related activities.
She also makes the point that increasing numbers of people are using services like Twitter and Facebook as a work requirement. This in turn makes the argument about agency in this context very difficult to unravel.
While there were no obvious answers to important questions raised in this discussion, the lengths to which people now have to go in order to protect or preserve their privacy mean that without clear and obvious choice, Facebook's position, while seemingly unpalatable might well be true.
That's worth considering in a world where commercially at least, data collection, analysis and use is top of mind for marketers. Why? Because the impact it has on our overall social lives, our identity and perceptions about what society means matter in a tech driven world.