How One Woman Hid Her Pregnancy From Big Data
For the past nine months, Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, tried to hide from the Internet the fact that she's pregnant — and it wasn't easy.
Pregnant women are incredibly valuable to marketers. For example, if a woman decides between Huggies and Pampers diapers, that's a valuable, long-term decision that establishes a consumption pattern. According to Vertesi, the average person's marketing data is worth 10 cents; a pregnant woman's data skyrockets to $1.50. And once targeted advertising finds a pregnant woman, it won't let up.
Vertesi presented on big data at the Theorizing the Web conference in Brooklyn on Friday, where she discussed how she hid her pregnancy, the challenges she faced and how the experience sheds light on the overall political and social implications of data-collecting bots and cookies.
"My story is about big data, but from the bottom up," she said. "From a very personal perspective of what it takes to avoid being collected, being tracked and being placed into databases."
First, Vertesi made sure there were absolutely no mentions of her pregnancy on social media, which is one of the biggest ways marketers collect information. She called and emailed family directly to tell them the good news, while also asking them not to put anything on Facebook. She even unfriended her uncle after he sent a congratulatory Facebook message.
She also made sure to only use cash when buying anything related to her pregnancy, so no information could be shared through her credit cards or store-loyalty cards. For items she did want to buy online, Vertesi created an Amazon account linked to an email address on a personal server, had all packages delivered to a local locker and made sure only to use Amazon gift cards she bought with cash.
I'm actually here today to win the 'Most Creative Use of Tor' award," she said, followed by roars of laughter in the audience. "I really couldn't have done it without Tor, because Tor was really the only way to manage totally untraceable browsing. I know it's gotten a bad reputation for Bitcoin trading and buying drugs online, but I used it for BabyCenter.com."
Genius, right? But not exactly foolproof. 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.
Vertesi said we need to be more aware of the information we give our servers voluntarily, and wondered if a time will ever come when we can opt out of giving personal information to the Internet.
Winter Mason, fellow panelist and data scientist at Facebook, said that he doesn't think that's possible anymore.