Thu, May 15, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Trying to stay anonymous on the Web arouses suspicions

The sobering story of Janet Vertesi’s attempts to conceal her pregnancy from the forces of online marketers shows how Kafkaesque the Internet has become

By John Naughton  /  The Observer

When searching for an adjective to describe our comprehensively surveilled networked world — the one bookmarked by the US National Security Agency (NSA) at one end and by Google, Facebook, Yahoo and co at the other — “Orwellian” is the word that people generally reach for.

However, “Kafkaesque” seems more appropriate. The term is conventionally defined as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre or illogical quality,” but Frederick Karl, Franz Kafka’s most assiduous biographer, regarded that as missing the point.

“What’s Kafkaesque,” he told the New York Times, “is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.”

A vivid description of this was provided recently by Janet Vertesi, a sociologist at Princeton University.

She gave a talk at a conference describing her experience of trying to keep her pregnancy secret from marketers.

Her report is particularly pertinent because pregnant women are regarded by online advertisers as one of the most valuable entities on the net.

You and I are worth, on average, only US$0.10 each. However, a pregnant woman is valued at US$1.50 because she is about to embark on a series of purchasing decisions stretching well into her child’s lifetime.

Professor Vertesi’s story is about big data, but from the bottom up. It is a gripping personal account of what it takes to avoid being collected, tracked and entered into databases.

First — and most obviously — she determined that there would be absolutely no mention of her new state on social media.

She phoned or wrote individually to friends and family members to give them the good news and asked them not to mention it on Facebook.

However, an uncle in Australia sent her a congratulatory message via Facebook.

“I then did what any rational person would do. I deleted the thread of all our conversations and unfriended him,” she said.

He replied plaintively: “But I didn’t put it on your wall,” apparently unaware that chats and other messages are not private in the sense that he assumed.

In preparing for the birth of her child, Vertesi was nothing if not thorough.

Instead of using a Web browser in the normal way — ie, leaving a trail of cookies and other digital tracks, she used the online service Tor to visit anonymously. She shopped offline whenever she could and paid in cash.

On the occasions when she had to use Amazon, she set up a new Amazon account linked to an e-mail address on a personal server, had all packages delivered to a local locker and made sure only to pay with Amazon gift cards that had been purchased with cash.

The really significant moment came when she came to buy a big-ticket item — an expensive stroller that was the urbanite’s equivalent of an SUV.

Her husband tried to buy US$500 of Amazon gift vouchers with cash, only to discover that this triggered a warning: Retailers have to report people buying large numbers of gift vouchers with cash because, well, you know, they are obviously money launderers.

At this point, some sobering thoughts begin to surface.

The first is Melvin Kranzberg’s observation that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

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