Keeping your personal info private, why opting out is much harder than checking a box

by Eszter Hargittai on May 1, 2014

Janet Vertesi decided that she didn’t want companies and marketers to know that she was pregnant. How hard is that nowadays in the US with so little data privacy protection for consumers? It turns out it’s quite complicated. Not only does it result in lots of inconveniences such as seeming rude to family and friends or having to concoct complicated ways of purchasing things, but it may even make you look like a criminal. Reading about her experiences is thought provoking. She certainly does a good job challenging the idea that not being tracked is as simple as opting out through some simple clicks of a button. While those who think about these issues are well aware of that, many people are not as some of her examples show.



Barry 05.01.14 at 2:50 pm

This was a good story.


Eszter Hargittai 05.01.14 at 3:33 pm

Thanks, Barry, agreed. It’s a fascinating case and she did a nice job writing it up. I’ll probably assign the article in some classes.


Lynne 05.01.14 at 3:45 pm

“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.”

I think that’s the kernel right there. This belief that people will vote with their feet implies that they can, and so if they don’t they must not mind. No one who doesn’t study such things seems to understand how un-private Facebook is, or to mind the ads that come with g-mail which reflect the content of e-mails. I worry for the next generation.


Eszter Hargittai 05.01.14 at 5:40 pm

Lynne, exactly, not much of a choice, especially in the US. I don’t think it’s just the next generation we need to worry about, by the way. Most people seem to be oblivious to a lot of this.


Lynne 05.01.14 at 6:31 pm

Eszter, I agree most people are oblivious. I guess I was thinking that people who grew up before the computer age had an expectation of privacy they could apply to the internet, whereas people who have grown up with computers do not have that frame of reference.


nnyhav 05.01.14 at 6:44 pm

I’m not at all bemused that clicking on the Time piece automagically picks up my WordPress details.


fivegreenleafs 05.01.14 at 7:53 pm

This is nicely done and a very good story to tell, but I am pessimistic in regard to our ability to stop the wheel, and turn it back any time soon.

I fear personal privacy in any real sense will become a very rare commodity (possibly only afforded by the very rich), very soon.

As an example close to home, in my own region of the world, there exist an aggressive movement to remove cash from circulation in society altogether, and to make all transactions electronic, which would remove some of the last possibilities you still have to avoid tracking as described in this article.


marcel 05.01.14 at 8:13 pm

nnyhav wrote:

I’m not at all bemused that clicking on the Time piece automagically picks up my WordPress details.

You may not be bemused by that, but I am certainly bemused by your word choice &/or usage, one or the other or both.


mpowell 05.01.14 at 8:14 pm

I don’t really believe that the phenomenon you are referring to is closely related to the level of privacy you enjoy. Certainly there will be odd circumstances; pregnant kids receiving advertisements for diapers could out them to their parents, sure. But generally, targeted search ads are not the same thing as a person reading your private communication. To equate the two is just silly. And this is far less personal than the kind of close scrutiny you will get from your neighbors living in a small community. I agree that opting out is not an easy option and may not be feasible at all. On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that it’s a substantial burden on personal privacy construed broadly.


John Quiggin 05.02.14 at 12:45 am

I used to think that I was still below the radar until I tried to book into a hotel (it was full on the days I wanted) then saw an ad for it pop up on my Facebook page.


Eszter Hargittai 05.02.14 at 12:58 am

Yup, John. And annoying, that ad probably kept showing up on FB and other sites for quite a while.:(


Lynne 05.02.14 at 12:53 pm

There is a dystopian trilogy by John Twelve Hawks called, I think, The Fourth Realm trilogy. It is set in the near future where everyone is monitored by the government—lots of cameras on the street and so on—but the information collected doesn’t matter that much because of the overwhelming amount of data—too much to actually monitor. People are safe as an individual fish in a school of millions is safe. Then the government finds a way to monitor the data and that is the situation when the trilogy opens with The Traveler, which is the best of the three books. I found it chilling in the way Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was chilling—I felt both scenarios could really happen soon.


Map Maker 05.02.14 at 5:37 pm

+1 for mpowell. The internet, with cookies and banner ads has orders of magnitude more privacy than growing up in a small to medium sized community.


nick s 05.02.14 at 6:25 pm

This piece in Model View Culture on “enthusiastic consent” complements it well.

If we [the tech industry] treat unwanted emails, or accidentally clicked advertising links, as too small a deal to bother, then we’re asserting that we know better than our users what their boundaries are. In other words, we’re placing ourselves in the arbiter-of-boundaries role which abuse culture assigns to “society as a whole.”

Engineers work with what’s technically achievable given the data sets and algorithms available to them; marketers have a range of Skinnerian methods to call upon; in the US, where data protection law is at best weak and at worst terrible, that provides a lot of leeway.

generally, targeted search ads are not the same thing as a person reading your private communication

You can choose to believe that if you like, but persistent cookies that span browser sessions track the things that one would not actually communicate, even privately. It is very much like being in one of those small communities where everyone feels compelled to go to the next county but one to buy their liquor, because you’ll be noticed if you shop at the store just over the county line.


roy belmont 05.03.14 at 4:57 am

I haven’t seen anything online by anyone seriously treating what I’m thinking must be huge systemic behavioral changes resulting from the bulk-collection/metadata analysis whatever-it-is plus the Snowden business. Some thing is watching all of us.
Anonymity was one of the big freedoms of the web, but that’s gone isn’t it?
I certainly have no anonymity whatsoever, but then it’s been years since I felt I did. Decades.
Soon everyone will feel that I think.
That your online choices are being tracked now in granular detail, yes, but that porn was one of the primary drivers of 90’s software development, that the sense of anonymity pervading the early web produced a lot of unusual gratification behaviors involving porn as well as verbal violence, that within the last two years that sense of anonymity has vanished from most rational folks’ sense of things completely.
“Anonymous” the group may still have some shreds of their eponym, but the news is making it clear there was some pretty childish hubris working on at least some members of the hacker underground all along, and that can only get more transparent, harder to maintain obscurity as the observational tech metastasizes.

One would expect a rise in anxious politesse and decorum, or at least a subsidence of nasty vitriol and sleaze.
Which is maybe happening.


Tom Slee 05.03.14 at 2:16 pm

I agree with what nick s quotes. One side of this story that hasn’t been emphasized is the creeping requirement of online participation to take part in a range of social activities. So to join Lyft (a real-world taxi alternative) one must have and supply a Facebook or LinkedIn profile; Airbnb lists hosts’ number of Facebook friends as one way to establish trust. The broader idea is, of course, that one’s online profile/brand becomes a mechanism for establishing a “reputation”, and so an essential part of participating in a growing segment of society.

To go back to nick s’s extract from Betsy Haibel’s piece, this is the tech industry asserting that signing on to tech industry platforms is a valid way of establishing identity and trustworthiness. And how could that possibly go wrong?


Helen 05.05.14 at 4:02 am

Since becoming a denizen of the internet in the late 1990s I have increasingly felt that we are experiencing a return to – as mpowell says – the experience of living in a small community. Try concealing a pregnancy that kind of milieu. And following on from that, it seems the level of privacy and anonymity we were able to have in the twentieth century was the historical anomaly, rather than the reverse.
I’m not saying that’s a good thing, mind you, just that it is what it is.


roy belmont 05.05.14 at 5:19 am

The anonymity’s migrating, from users to providers, from the faces to the “book”.
We know we’re being watched, profiled, evaluated, but we have no idea by whom.
And increasingly that’s because there isn’t a “whom”. There’s an “it”.
It is watching you.

15 years ago: on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.
Today: cloud algorithms know you’re a dog, what breed, what sex, how old, and whether you’ve had your shots or not.

Very few, some but not many, of the people deploying small communities as loci of non-anonymous reality have lived in them. And no one’s lived in small communities that weren’t being metabolized by global culture, because that hasn’t been possible for a hundred years or more now.
There’s some truth to the picture, but a whole lot of cliched nonsense too.
The real return is to the Judeo-Christian all-seeing deity, the never-sleeping eye in the sky that knows everything you’re doing, and isn’t happy about most of it.
Add-in killer drones and an irrational vindictive moral persona and you’ve got your basic Old Testament re-enactment, covering the world.


godoggo 05.05.14 at 6:54 am

I really need to get some of those drone things.


godoggo 05.05.14 at 6:57 am

I used to have a remote controlled ghost but it just wasn’t the same.


Martin Bento 05.05.14 at 9:44 am

This notion that the new lack of privacy is just a return to a premodern norm is misconceived and pernicious. First of all, it is not even necessarily true that your nosy small town neighbors will always know more about you than Google and the NSA do. Even in a small town, you can keep your masturbatory fantasies secret pretty easily, but, if you use the Internet for porn, G & N can deduce them pretty well. More fundamentally, though, “private” information does not generally mean information that no other person in the world but you possesses. Most of what we do involves other people, so most of our “secrets” are shared secrets. If you are closeted, your same-sex partners know you are gay (if you are not actively gay, we are back to masturbatory fantasies). If a teen is pregnant, she usually tells the father, perhaps some friends, likely a doctor or abortionist. If you are having an affair, your partner knows you are having sex with them, may well know you are married, and may even personally know your spouse. The fact that some other people know these things does not mean they are not, or even less, secret or private. What makes information private is not that no one else knows it, but that not everyone can know it. Private information is information from which someone is or can be excluded. Maybe you don’t care if everyone in the world but your child knows what you are getting her for her birthday. That still qualifies as private information.

You can also be in a group wherein secrets are shared. You don’t necessarily get to choose which individuals in the group know what. The nature of the group is that information is liberally shared within it, but not with outsiders – mafias, secret societies, often families follow this pattern.

It cracks me up that the conventional wisdom is that traditional societies have no feeling of privacy whatsoever, that anthropologists often endorse this, and then go on about how it took them 3 years to acquire enough trust to be allowed to see the religious ritual. This is group privacy, like the Masons. The fact that secrets are shared within the group does not change the fact that they are private. Almost all secrets, again, are shared secrets. The only common individual privacy is that of our own thoughts, which are usually of no consequence unless they map to action.

In a small town, you know as much of your neighbor’s business as they do of yours. There is a balance of power. This is quite different from people at the NSA or Google knowing all kinds of things about me without me even being able to determine who they are or anything about them. And knowing things about people gives you power over them, often subtle, but real.

I think it’s funny that conventional


Cranky Observer 05.05.14 at 11:33 am

= = = On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that it’s a substantial burden on personal privacy construed broadly. = = =

Try a little experiment: open up a commercial-grade Choicepoint account and order a full credit and marketing profile on any of James Clapper, Eric Schmidt, Sergi Brin, Richard Cheney. You’ll find that (1) your request will be rejected (2) within 24 hours you will receive visits from the FBI (accompanied by the private security forces of the private corporations) (3) you’ll quite possibly receive a taxpayer-funded vacation to Guantanamo Bay.

If privacy is so unimportant, why do those who control the levers of information guard their own so tightly?



Zamfir 05.05.14 at 3:49 pm

@ Cranky, the more likely outcomes ends at 1, a denial. That’s enough, isn’t it? Your 2 and 3 would be scare tactics, intended to prevent others from trying the same and perhaps succeeding. But they are not worried about that, because it always ends at step 1.


Cranky Observer 05.05.14 at 4:00 pm

I wasn’t speaking of hypotheticals.


Martin Bento 05.05.14 at 6:13 pm

Minor editing mistake at end of comment upthread. Sorry.


Martin Bento 05.05.14 at 6:15 pm

Cranky, you mean you know of a case where someone went to Gitmo for something like that? Or even got an FBI visit?


Eszter Hargittai 05.06.14 at 4:21 pm

Martin Bento – Thanks very much for your very helpful comments above (21) on why this is not simply like life in a small village. One issue that people often seem to forget is the amount of data invisible to us that companies/gov see and are able to aggregate plus mine for patterns not visible to the human eye per se.

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