“Opting Out Is Not an Option:” A Woman Acts Like a “Criminal” to Protect Her Privacy

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By Anahita Poonegar

Janet Vertesi, an assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, recently spent nine months of her life in engaged in a concerted effort to maintain her privacy. Yes, she was pregnant and wanted to see if she could keep that fact private in the online world. On April 25, 2014, she gave a presentation of the some of the lengths she had to go through to make this happen at an event held in New York called Theorizing the Web. You can see her presentation in this video.

Ms. Vertesi mentions the well-publicized story of how a teenager’s father found out his daughter was pregnant by Target before she told him. In order to avoid her pregnancy becoming yet another cog in the big data driven marketing machine, Ms. Vertessi went to great lengths to keep her condition private. First thing was to make sure she didn’t post any information in social media and contacted her friends and relatives by phone to ask that they do the same. She didn’t want to have to give up on e-mail, so she created a private e-mail address which was hosted on a personal server she controlled. She didn’t want to give up gathering information on the web, so she ended up using Tor, a network using software designed to protect anonymity on the Internet. She even went as far as buying $500 Amazon gift cards to buy a stroller through Amazon and have it shipped to a safe locker.

It was the latter experience which brought to her attention a sign at the store saying that the store had the right to report to authorities anyone buying large amounts of gift cards. It was at this point that Ms. Vertesi realized that in order to protect her privacy, essentially she was being obliged to use the same techniques as criminals. The entire system of collection of data for marketing has become so ingrained to our lives, both online and off, to the extent that, as Ms. Vertesi puts it, “Opting out is not an option.”