Janet Vertesi may be the only expectant woman in America not to see a single diaper ad during her pregnancy.
Mo Data stashed this in Big Data Ethics and Privacy
“I immediately deleted the messages and unfriended them,” she says. “They didn’t understand that private messages on Facebook are as bad as Wall posts. What’s amazing is how the platforms have disappeared into the background. They didn’t think about the platform being part of the interaction. I didn’t want Facebook to know about the pregnancy, and they could do that by data-mining my private messages. I certainly had that years ago,” she notes, “when Google knew I was engaged before my family and friends did, based on my chats.”
Janet Vertesi is expecting to give birth on Saturday. She may be the only expectant woman in America not to see a single diaper ad over the course of her pregnancy.
That’s because the Princeton sociology professortreated her impending birth as many people might treat online criminal activity. She paid for maternity clothes in cash, insisted friends and families not discuss the bump on Facebook, surfed baby sites only with the Tor browser (which masks a user’s IP address), and used a code language to talk about the baby with her husband via text message. They definitely didn’t have a baby registry.
“It was really just a personal project, to see if it’s possible to avoid detection. If you’re a pregnant woman, it’s usually impossible to make it through your pregnancy without a single diapers ad. We didn’t get a single baby mailing, which is why I think it worked,” Vertesi said by phone. “You have to start early though before you’re even pregnant: My husband and I bought prenatal vitamins with cash.”
It’s hard to hide this online.
Parents-to-be are incredibly valuable customers, guaranteed to drop lots of money for 18 years or more, so companies go to great lengths to identify themand to snag them as customers. After reading a story about Target predicting a teen girl was pregnant before her father knew based on seemingly random purchases, Vertesi decided she see if it was possible to keep her own pregnancy secret from companies and online data brokers.
The web-browsing part was easy: “I was on BabyCenter.com constantly but through Tor, along with WebMD and ‘Pick your baby name,’” she says. Where it got hard was 1) interacting with people on Facebook and 2) buying actual products. It would’ve been easy to delete her Facebook account, but she sees the socializing with family, friends and colleagues as an important part of her routine, so she asked them — through secure channels — not to talk about the pregnancy on Facebook. But she got two Facebook messages from family members, including a beloved uncle, congratulating her.
“I immediately deleted the messages and unfriended them,” she says. “They didn’t understand that private messages on Facebook are as bad as Wall posts. What’s amazing is how the platforms have disappeared into the background. They didn’t think about the platform being part of the interaction. I didn’t want Facebook to know about the pregnancy, and they could do that by data-mining my private messages.”
“I certainly had that years ago,” she notes, “when Google knew I was engaged before my family and friends did, based on my chats.”
Facebook says the private messages wouldn’t have translated into pregnancy ads for Vertesi. “We don’t use the information people share in private messages to target ads on Facebook,” says a spokesperson.
When it came to buying maternity and baby products, Vertesi avoided credit cards, either paying for items in person with cash — which was often expensive in Manhattan, where she and her husband live — or through Amazon. They created an email account on their own server solely to set up an Amazon account, and then used gift cards purchased with cash to pay for their purchases which they had shipped to an Amazon locker, so the company wouldn’t have their home address. “Amazon knows that email address has babies,” says Vertesi. When they bought a fancy stroller on Amazon, her husband had to get over $500 in gift cards at a Rite Aid, where he noticed a warning that the Rite Aid might limit prepaid card purchases and was required to “report excessive transactions to the authorities.” Between that and their excessive Tor use, they were starting to feel like miscreants.
“Opting out makes you look like a criminal,” says Vertesi. “People have reasons for privacy that are not terrible ones. They just don’t want everything about them captured by a company and kept.”
Vertesi doesn’t recommend others try to do what she did. “It’s incredibly inconvenient. It isn’t sustainable and I don’t recommend that other people try fleeing Facebook and doing everything with Tor. I just wanted to show how we take for granted the mechanisms of the Internet economy, including constant tracking and monetizing of our data. My project wasn’t about not consuming; I just wanted to resist tracking in the act of consumption, and that was difficult to do.”
Vertesi’s motivations were to make a statement about how the Internet tracks and monetizes us, but there are parents who might not want their pregnancies tracked for other reasons. Sometimes data brokers accurately infer that a woman is pregnant, but they fail to recognize when someone has lost that child.
“Some how, some way, Target found out I was pregnant. And so did Gerber Life, and American Baby Magazine, and Similac,” wrote a blogger in piece titled “Life After Miscarriage.” “ Unfortunately, none of them got the memo that I’m no longer pregnant. My trip to the mailbox has become a daily reminder that I should be getting ready to have a baby.”
“Amazon can you please stop sending me deals on baby strollers and car seats? It kind of doesn’t help that corporate America is knocking on my door with daily reminders,” wrote another miscarriage blogger in 2009.
“Big data is getting creepy and it’s invading people’s lives more and more. There’s been this tremendous rise of an invisible layer of the Internet that involves bots, beacons and cookies that build a profile of who we are online,” says Vertesi. “I don’t know where that information is going, or who it’s going to, who those companies are and where they sell it.”
Vertesi finds it “disconcerting” that the default business model for the Internet is to give everything away for free in exchange for personal information. “I’m a big fan of options,” she says. “I want to see more innovative technologies that offer consumers the right to opt out. We need to think imaginatively about how consumers can manage their relationships with companies, and how their data is used.”Vertesi’s pregnancy is no longer a secret thanks to a Mashable article about her talking about the project at a conference in Brooklyn.
“Now it’s more public than I could ever imagine,” she says. “But I feel really strongly about the issue and am happy to talk about it. And as soon as you register the birth at the hospital, it’s all over anyway. We knew this was the natural end of the experiment.”