Harry Potter’s parents were killed because their personal data — data that they thought was secure and would not be used without their consent — was compromised by Peter Pettigrew, the very person to whom they had entrusted the data. Pettigrew leaked the data to Voldemort who, having thus learned the Potters’ location data, came and killed them. It’s a lot like shopping at Target. No, no, wait. I’m serious. A student just sent me a link to a story ran by Forbes about a pregnant teen being “outed” to her parents by Target’s targeted advertising. Aside from the murders, the story contains a lot of parallels to the tragic tale of the Potters’ demise.
Here’s what happened. It seems that Target does a lot of data mining when you shop there. According to the Forbes article, “Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.” Then Target mashes the data around and looks for patterns that might reveal clues to purchasing preferences; they mail the customer a personalized flyer full of coupons that will “help” him or her save money on the items Target’s “bucket algorithm” asserts this customer will find interesting. Well, some time in the not-too-distant past, Target’s algorithm elves zipped out a flyer to someone the algorithm assured them was pregnant.
Problem? The flyer’s recipient was an unmarried high school student whose irate father showed up at the local Target store demanding to know why Target was encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. What’s worse, the algorithm was right; the daughter was not only pregnant, but due to give birth almost exactly when the Target algorithm predicted. Dad apologized to the manager. It’s a creepy tale for our time, but is neither as unique nor as simple as it appears at first blush.
Perhaps our naive assumption that the data we trail behind us in cyberspace will be used to our benefit can be traced to Google’s famous founding motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” Yet in the last week, Google has revealed its own attempt to alter the code in Apple’s Safari web browser to enable Google to do much the same type of data tracking globally that Target has been doing within its organization. The disclosure of “Safari-gate” has prompted calls for an FTC investigation of all things Google. (These calls, by the way, have fallen on deaf ears at both Google and the FTC.) One wonders how long such stonewalling will be successful? Still, it has been going on for quite a while; by now, I would guess that Google and Facebook are the two primary companies monopolizing information collected on the lives of millions of people worldwide. No doubt governments would love to know more, but they don’t have Google’s or Facebook’s budgetary and technological resources. Besides, it’s likely the CIA will soon be able to buy a similar app for their iPads — after giving Apple its 30 percent piece of the pie, that is. The companies targeted by these negative headlines staunchly assert that any excessive gathering of personal data has merely been the result of unintentional missteps in their efforts to provide the services we demand of them. I wish that were a bald-faced lie.
You see, a fly in the ointment for those demanding a stem of the current trends in data mining, crunching, and selling is this: we freely provide most of the data being mined. No one holds a gun to our heads and demands that we use our Preferred Customer Card at the local grocery, clothing, or hardware store. We pay for the Groupon that feeds data into that bucket. We fail to install “Do Not Track” software. We blithely click “Like” and “+1” all over the web. We Tweet and Retweet our little fingers off, pouring more and more data into the busy maws of the data miners. Do we really think that all of those “services” are provided in order to put money into our pockets? Those services generate huge profits for a kaleidoscope of companies whose entire “raison d’être,” or reason for existence, is to lighten our wallets — to slide cash out of our accounts and into theirs. And that’s OK.
No, really, it is OK. That is the core of capitalism, of a marketplace economy. It is what the nation has been about since our earliest days, and no one seems to have come up with a better system. The more nuanced issue is fairness and intent. My simplistic perspective is, “Tell me what you are asking from me, tell me what you know about me, and tell me what I am getting in return.” If that information is open and upfront, and if I can easily choose “not to play,” then fine; I will not gripe. But this is not, it seems, how data mining works. Data miners operate on the assumption that what they don’t know, won’t hurt them. They take our data, often in surreptitious ways, and use it to significantly increase their profits. Or, they simply repackage and sell the data to others. The data miners opine, however, that we gave this information to them — that the data are in their hands as a result of our own actions or inactions. No harm, no foul.
Increasingly, I have grown less convinced of the case for “no harm.”
The instance of revealing the teen pregnancy is one obvious example of harm being done. It is probably no big deal in the life of a large corporation like Target, but it is certainly a big deal in the life of that youngster and her family. The discordant dialogues within families are difficult enough without being brought to light by the blunders of a clueless crew of anonymous digital hucksters.
I believe there is also a deeper and more primary harm, and that is the re-conceptualization of the private. Our species began in private. Privacy was imperative, or the faster and stronger creatures would kill us. We were relatively harmless little packages of protein (if the carnivores could find us). Then, across the millennia, we evolved into clans and tribes, towns and cities, nations and empires. We put on public faces to perform the public tasks necessary to maintain the complex institutions integral to civilization. Privacy became not so much a case of the survival of a species as it was a comfort — a soothing retreat from the rough elbows of public life. A private place became a space apart, something to be valued and pursued. In America, you are considered fully vetted in “the dream” when you purchase or acquire a home of your own. In the context of the recent recession, there is little more painful for us than losing that cherished, private place we call our home.
Now, various hip “cyberati” inform us that “privacy is so twentieth century.” In this day and age, we share it all (i.e., posts and reposts on your “Timeline” from womb to tomb). Every private thought and action is made public, often at the very instant of its occurrence. Yet, if that were really the undisputed state of the current culture, why would the various intrusions into our data stream cause such indignation? Perhaps it is because we are upset by the realization that, in a purely public world, we lose the unique opportunity to construct truth from our private existence, as that existence is no longer private. Insight into our personal past now flickers on Ancestry.com, open to anyone with the price of admission. Our personalized present scrolls by on a variety of social media feeds. The comfort of conversation is peppered with quick consults of the electronic oracle to ascertain any questions or assertions of fact, history, or locale. The distinction between public and private has blurred beyond definitional agreement. We seem to recognize those dichotomous spheres only by the most egregious trespasses: “Not only do I not need to know that, but I am offended by having been made aware of it,” and, “How dare you seek to intrude upon that part of my life?”
Our inability to consistently or accurately discern the various shades of gray between those blacks and whites — between obvious good and unfettered evil — may well arise from the fact that good and evil often seem to wear the same masks and live in the same digital spaces, and those spaces are increasingly public spaces. Our lives, taken as a whole, have become more public than private. We’re thus left with this question: Is there an evolutionary advantage to lives lived primarily in public? If I am being asked to jettison the comforting quiet of the private in favor of the roar of lives lived in full public view, what do I gain as an individual? What do we gain as a species? To date, the dominant response seems to be “better shopping.” That is not yet enough for me. I’m still willing to settle for humble wine before a fire that is neither HD nor crackling in surround sound, but is, instead, quietly comfortable in a private, friendly circle built for two.