Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Privacy -- it isn't what it used to be

Privacy — what a quaint concept, one that has largely gone out of fashion. At the time I wrote this, I had just gone to see the movie IRON LADY. While Margaret Thatcher’s politics aren’t mine, I did recognize that there were admirable aspects to her character, even if I disagreed with many of her choices. What struck me most strongly, though, was the divide between her private feelings and her public face.

We’ve largely lost that divide, for better or worse. Today we let everything hang out. Not that I’m necessarily promoting stiff upper lips. Still, while it’s good that people don’t have to suffer in silence now, that we can turn to others for help and advice in dark times, perhaps we’ve gone too far. Do we really have to post every personal sensation on Facebook and Twitter?

I’m not sure whether cell phones started the privacy decline, or if it would have happened without them. Working in retail as I do, I see lots of cell phone intrusions. I’m happy to report that many of our customers do issue a polite “Excuse me,” to us and other customers in the store and go outside to conduct their conversation. Sure, they’re usually shouting out there, since cell phone reception combined with the normal sounds of outdoor spaces, usually results in greater volume. But at least they’re not shouting in our bookstore. Others aren’t as polite. They answer right there, and conduct their book browsing with the help of some unknown person.

That behavior isn’t just limited to bookstores, either. Once while I stood in line at the grocery store, the man behind me called someone and read all the tabloid covers to that person while we waited.

“Dude,” I wanted to say, “you need a life.” But I was trying to give him his personal space, even if he didn’t seem to need it.

Recently, I experienced an odd intrusion from the extended non-privacy sphere. Let me explain. We put Google Ads on our bookstore’s website to create an additional source of revenue. It hasn’t worked that well. Since the word “books” is repeated throughout the website, it has mostly generated book-related ads. Some for all the many subsidy publishing companies mushrooming today, and others for our competitors, which are supposed to be blocked but aren’t consistently. You might say that since I invited the ads in, I’m responsible for my own challenges in this area, and that’s nothing I haven’t thought of myself.

But I hadn’t expected one bizarre aspect. The Google ads are accessed by a user name related to the store. While signed OUT of that account, but still in the same computer I use for everything related to the Google ads, I recently conducted a personal Google search among household décor suppliers. I wanted to identify the style of kitchen faucet we have, which came with the house, so I could search for a replacement part.

Bingo! Only moments later, faucet ads appeared on our bookstore’s ads. Coincidence? To test my dawning theory, while still signed out of the account associated with the ads, I performed a few more deliberate searches. For clothes, shoes, furniture, kitchen gadgets. Sure enough, all of those products and advertisers also showed up in our ads.

It gave me an icky feeling, though. On one hand, I now have a tool to better control the ads that pop up on my bookstore’s website, even if it does seem a bit convoluted to perform seemingly unrelated searches from another account for products that don’t really interest me. But it also makes me feel weird and watched when I realize the extent to which we’re being electronically monitored.

Remember when we thought Big Brother would be the government? Turns out we were wrong.

I’m happy to share some of my thoughts and aspects of my life with others. Including this either creepy or clever technique for influencing the content of Internet ads. But I’d like to reserve other aspects for my personal use. For a while longer anyway. There was a time when we never would have thought we’d be forever shouting personal messages into unwired phones. Who knows where else we’re headed in this brave new world.

Do you lament the decline of privacy, or have you failed to notice its passing?


  1. I agree, Kris! Great post. It's nice to connect with so many people I would never have the chance to meet in real life, yet I feel pretty vulnerable out here in cyber space.

  2. That's exactly what I think, Larissa. The internet has offered us so much, but maybe we've paid a bit too high a price for it. The icky messages from the FB trolls tells us that! Thanks for writing.

  3. Alas, every time you input something on the internet, be it a search for dog food, faucets or books, it is being monitored, the information sent back, related to your ISP and if you've visited more than one site that has the same monitors (thank you Numerati) the statistics grow. Soon you will find that all your ads, and even your searches are tailored to you, your individual tastes. Why? Because that is where the big money is these days. I tell my clients not to succumb to anything that is 'free' to download, stay away from games, and be careful even of 'apps', but frankly it is unavoidable. Even web sites we use that should be safe such as insurances, banks, etcetera, often use scrapers to pull identifying information off, allegedly non individualized information that would not identify anyone and not for sale, but...yes, you guessed it, there was a situation recently where that was breached.
    Great blog and spot on.

  4. Great post, Kris. I had the same experience recently, and was appalled that the site asked if I wanted to list x, y, and z, which I had just searched for. I deleted the request, but since then I've wondered if I need a second computer, for anything that might go public without my approval. I also understand now why a retired policeman friend in another country refuses to have a computer in his house, as does a retired programmer from one of the big US computer giants. If the ones inside want nothing to do with it, what does that tell us? This is why I won't bank online.