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Going Off The Grid

Over on Forbes.com, privacy scribe Kashmir Hill’s The Not-So-Private Parts blog has an interesting story of a Princeton University sociologists’ online experiment. Janet Vertisi, familiar with the story of a New Jersey teen whose father learned of her pregnancy because of a target marketing campaign by retail giant Target, decided to try and mask her own pregnancy from the digital realm.

Vertisi started early (before actually becoming pregnant but while preparing for the eventuality) and changed both her offline and online habits. She instructed friends and family to avoid making mention of her condition on sites like Facebook, used cash whenever making pregnancy-related purchases, and switched to the IP address-masking browser Tor to ensure her search and browsing history would not be scooped up by digital marketers.

The lengths to which Vertisi and her husband went to mask their situation from the digital world worked—until she gave a presentation about her experience at a conference, resulting in an article on Mashable. But the lesson is clear: with considerable effort it is possible to go off the digital grid and keep your business private. But there is a cost.

“Opting out makes you look like a criminal,” Hill quotes Vertesi as saying. “People have reasons for privacy that are not terrible ones. They just don’t want everything about them captured by a company and kept.”

That regular people, with nothing to hide but with no desire to share every detail of their lives online, have to go to such lengths to keep routine life events from falling into a marketer’s crosshairs is disconcerting to many. But for everyone it should be a reminder that we need to be careful about what and how we share online. Someone is watching. Lots of someones are watching.

Vertisi’s experience shows that there are tools available to help us cover our digital tracks. These tools are growing more popular as disclosures of government surveillance persist and as people grow more aware of the level of tracking and analysis that takes place during the course of a routine online session. Google search, clicks through to commercial properties, browsing news stories, emailing and chatting, social updates… they are all being monitored and the resulting intelligence sold for massive profits.

That may not bother you. It doesn’t seem to worry the majority of people who gleefully engage and share all sorts of things online. But even if you don’t care if the world knows about your love of coffee or cats, there are some details that are best left between you and only those you choose.

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