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 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 Forbe's 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 and they mail the owner of the "data bucket" a personalized flyer full of coupons that will "help" them save money on those items in which Target's "bucket algorithm" asserts they are interested. 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 recipient of flyer 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. Further problem: 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. A creepy tale for our time, but 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 that it has been messing with 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 revelation of "Safari-gate" has prompting calls for an FTC investigation of all things Google. Calls which, 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 awhile, and by now I would guess that Google and Facebook are the two companies that know more about the lives of millions of people in the world than any other entities. No doubt governments would love to know more, but they don't have Google's or Facebook's budgetary and technology resources. Besides, the CIA will probably soon be able to buy the app for their iPads — after giving Apple it's 30% piece of the pie. 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, the fly in ointment for those crying to stem the current tsunami of data mining, crunching and selling is this: we freely provide most of the data being mined. No one holds a gun to our head 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 maw of the data miners. Do we really think that all those "services" are provided to put money into our pockets? Let me tell an old story about a free lunch. Those "services" generate huge profits for a kaleidoscope of companies whose entire raison d'être 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 up front, and if I can easily choose "not to play," then fine. I will not gripe. But that is not, it seems, how data mining works. Data miners work on the assumption of "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. But, opine the data-miners, we gave it to them, 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 case 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.
But I believe there is 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, 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 the species as it was a comfort, a soothing retreat from the rough elbows of public life. A private place became a space apart, became something to be valued and pursued. In America, one became fully vetted in the dream when you owned a "home of you own." Nothing was more painful in the recent recession than losing that cherished private place, your home.
Yet now various hip "cyberati" inform us that "privacy is so 20th century." In the 21st we share it all, 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, because that existence is no longer private. Our insight into our personal past now flickers on Ancestry.com, open to anyone with the price of admission. Our personal present scrolls by on a variety of social media. 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 spheres only by the most egregious trespasses: "Not only do I not need to know that, 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. Which leads to 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? 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 quietly comfortable in a private, friendly circle built for two.