All magic comes with a price

Privacy has been an issue lately. But if you want to have privacy, it’s not that easy. One can set a “do not track” setting in your browser but as it turns out, it’s worthless. Yahoo announced that it will not respect the users whishes because they think a personalized web is the best.

Today I read the following tweet by Shelia Cotton:

The linked article describes a study by Janet  Vertesi,  an Assistant Professor as a sociologist of science and technology at Princeton University. She tried to hide her pregnancy for the whole 9 month from companies. Many people say, if you want your privacy, just op out. The experience of this study shows, it is possible but it comes with a price. And you might even end up as a suspected criminal because one can think you have something to hide. In fact you have even it is not related to any criminal intend.

Janet paid everything in cash or with anonymous prepaid gift cards. To visit baby related websites she used Tor and special accounts. Such behavior can be seen as criminal as she found out.

“But then my husband headed to our local corner store to buy enough gift cards to afford a stroller listed on Amazon. There, a warning sign behind the cashier informed him that the store “reserves the right to limit the daily amount of prepaid card purchases and has an obligation to report excessive transactions to the authorities.”

So her conclusion is:

“The myth that users will “vote with their feet” is simply wrong if opting out comes at such a high price. With social, financial and even potentially legal repercussions involved, the barriers for exit are high. This leaves users and consumers with no real choice nor voice to express our concerns.”

Well, one can say, that in Germany most of the people pay cash, so this would not be seen as suspicious if you withdraw money from your bank account. But as a matter of fact the amount of payments with any kind of bank or credit card has risen in the last decade and even if you pay cash there are many kinds of special cards for customers where you can gather some kinds of points.

A few weeks ago REWE has begun to use Payback cards and I’ve seen a lot of customers using these kinds of cards because they think they can get some money out of it. So there is not only online Big Data but also offline. And if you are able to connect these two worlds it is even better for you as a company.

And then there is the legal issue. If you want to find someone who might be a (future) criminal you have to look for abnormal behavior. The problem is the definition of abnormal. Is paying with cash abnormal? Social norms are just opinions of what the majority thinks is normal and good for society. This can hand has changed over time. Today you are a normal citizen and tomorrow someone says people who do what you do or come from where you come from are abnormal and should be punished. The problem is, no one knows the future.

So the only conclusion is, if you want to be a good citizen, just do as the others do. Don’t have fancy hobbies. Always look into a statistic of how many people do that kind of stuff you are planning to do. It should be a vast majority, just to be on the safe side. But even this might not be the case, as I said, you can’t predict the future.

Well these measures might be a little over exaggerated, but this experiment shows that it is not as easy as it looks to opt out of Big Data.

As a last remark. I’m always wondering why, at least in Germany, it seems to be the case that people think that companies which gather data, like Google are evil and the state which gathers data are good and will never misuse it. When Google started it Street view program and began to record pictures there was a big shitstorm you could say in all media. Many people tried to get their houses pixeled so no one could see it on the internet. But when the NSA spy programm was revealed the biggest outcry came when it was discovered that they also spied on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. And even now when the committee of investigation for the NSA is actively prevented to do their job by the government, it seems that no one really cares.

Because I think, companies don’t want to get you in jail, they want to sell you things. You can say, ok if you are not a criminal then they will find out the truth eventually and you have nothing to fear. Well you might want to tell this Andrej Holm  (His Blog)

But there is not only danger to some people who do the „wrong“ things. It can change the whole society. I will get back to this topic, about the social influences of mass monitoring another time.

Just remember, if they insist on mass surveillance everyone is under suspicion.

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3 Responses to All magic comes with a price

  1. Great post! Two things came into my mind, when reading your article:

    1. Trend or fad? Some researchers identified the LOCAS („Lifestyle of Controlled Anonymity and Security“). Is this lifestyle here to stay?

    2. You described how the whole society gets mainstreamed by avoiding any behavior that is potentially conspicious to whomever may observe this behaviour. However, the foundation of democracy is not being mainstreamed but finding a temporary majority in opposing opinions and motives. Hence, „conspicious behaviour“ is more important to democracy than one may believe.

    • Szblg says:

      Yes this is a real problem for democracy. Societies have to change in order to adapt to new circumstances. Every development begins with someone who does something different than others. But a society without any deviant behaviour is a dead society. There will be no development and the scenario looks more like a totalitarian system.

      These LOCAS are an interesting group. But I think even if this lifestyle stays, it will be a very small group unless secure technology becomes more userfriendly. On the other hand there are the great benefits of giving your data away and the described drawbacks if you are trying not to give away your data.

  2. Toc4 says:

    I don’t have the feeling that states collecting data are „good“, I simply have the feeling that the German authorities are not smart enough anyways. Hence I’m more afraid of companies.

    For example, companies can scan for MAC addresses of smart phones, since many of those devices constantly watch out for access points. At a supermarket checkout, one can bring together credit/debit card data with mac addresses (at least with a bunch of them, but if you do it often enough, you will eventually get the 1:1 mapping, since the crowd at the checkout won’t always be the same people)… now companies could sell these data. Even if not too usable for tracking people, shop owners could easily get the names of people walking through. Mh!

    So, companies won’t get me into jail? Maybe true. But how about: I don’t get a life insurance, because I hang out in shops selling „dangerous“ things too often? Even today, there are web shops that produce unexpected „errors“ if your address a shabby place. Which is illegal in Germany, but also hard to prove for the individual customer.

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