Why Opting Out Won’t Help Your Privacy

Why Opting Out Won’t Help Your Privacy

In my ongoing campaign to get people to pay more attention to privacy, one of the things I hear most often is that “Well, I opt-out of all of that stuff.  I’m private.”  TIME’s Janet Vertesi shows why that’s about as effective as spitting into the wind:  opting out means engaging in suspicious behavior, which will get you the exact kind of attention you were trying to avoid.

Vertesi and her husband found out they were pregnant, and decided to perform an experiment: could she keep it a secret from the big data machine for the entire nine months?  She explains all the trouble they had to go to:

Social media isn’t the only offender. Many websites and companies follow you around the Internet, especially baby-related ones. So I downloaded Tor, a private browser that routes your traffic through foreign servers. While it has a reputation for facilitating elicit activities, I used it to visit babycenter.com and to look up possible names. And when it came to shopping, I did all my purchasing—from prenatal vitamins to baby gear and maternity wear—in cash. No matter how good the deal, I turned down loyalty card swipes. I even set up an Amazon.com account tied to an email address hosted on a personal server, delivering to a locker, and paid with gift cards purchased with cash.

She also defriended family members on Facebook, with strict instructions to them not to mention her pregnancy anywhere online.  Seems like a lot of work just to keep something private, doesn’t it?  Vertesi realized when she tried to buy a stroller that her trying to keep her own life private might get her far more attention.

For months I had joked to my family that I was probably on a watch list for my excessive use of Tor and cash withdrawals. 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.”

It was no joke that taken together, the things I had to do to evade marketing detection looked suspiciously like illicit activities. All I was trying to do was to fight for the right for a transaction to be just a transaction, not an excuse for a thousand little trackers to follow me around. But avoiding the big data dragnet meant that I not only looked like a rude family member or an inconsiderate friend, I also looked like a bad citizen.

There, exactly, is how the system works.  People are expected to go along with the big data collection. Those who don’t, look suspicious.  Think about it: Say you know someone who uses a virtual private network and Tor to access the internet from a public wifi because they don’t want the government or some hacker to see what they’re doing on the internet.  They don’t use loyalty cards at Safeway or Target because they don’t want anyone seeing what they buy.  They pay with cash because they don’t want anyone reading their credit card and bank statements or tracking their purchases.  They have a burner phone because they don’t want the NSA listening to their calls.  If you’ve just said to yourself, “They must be doing something wrong,” then you’ve bought into the false idea that people should be okay with having every detail of their life open to anyone who wants to look.  Not everyone posts everything on Facebook, and not everyone who wants privacy is doing something illegal.  That being said, it seems the list of what’s illegal grows exponentially by the day.

The government’s motto seems to be “Go along with our surveillance and total control of you, or we’ll assume you’re doing something wrong, and we’ll look at you more.”

One more thing…opting out doesn’t matter because websites don’t honor your opt-out anyway.

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1 Comment
  • GWB says:

    I just noted the end of this piece where you *do* catch that Yahoo has stopped using the Do Not Track feature. I caught that this past weekend when I logged into my Yahoo email. Fortunately, 90% of what I get there is a few connections to friends and a LOT of spam (and a bunch of tech subscriptions I have had forever that I seldom read). I always log off when I’m done, and my browser cleans out all the cookies when I close it. So I have a *little* bit of privacy.

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