Janet Vertesi decided to run a real-life experiment when she found out she was expecting a baby. Instead of posting her pregnancy progress on Facebook, emailing friends and family with the good news and shopping for baby gear online, she closed off all media channels to see if she could hide her pregnancy status from advertisers. It worked, but you would not believe what hoops she had to jump through to make it happen.
You may have noticed ads popping up in your Facebook feed or your email provider that are eerily similar to what you were just searching for on the internet or talking about with a Facebook friend just a day before. This is no coincidence. Data mining is an ongoing process where companies store your spending and browsing patterns for future use — often to sell things to you that you're specifically interested in. If you think it's disturbing, it is. Consider that you are essentially leaving a footprint as you go about your day shopping, texting, emailing and posting to social media, and companies buy and sell that data.
Vertesi wanted to know if she could successfully cloak her pregnancy status and how difficult it would be. She found that it was complicated and time-consuming, and near the end of her pregnancy, she and her husband began to feel like criminals. She browsed for baby information through a browser called Tor that hides your IP address, and did all of her shopping either with cash or with pre-paid gift cards they purchased with cash.
She also refused to discuss pregnancy on Facebook and even unfriended two family members on Facebook because they sent her private messages congratulating her on her news (Facebook has since said that information in private messages is not used for targeted advertising purposes). They even went so far as to set up a separate email address on their own server to keep the baby data as distant from their actual lives as possible.
It turns out that she was successful, and reported that she never saw one baby ad online and never received one baby-related mailer in her mailbox throughout her entire pregnancy. But the experience was a major eye-opener for her, and while her experience is definitely interesting, it's not something she would even recommend to someone. She admits that it was more of an educational experiment for her, to see if she could successfully hide such a huge part of her life.
I have to say that I love baby advertising. I loved getting catalogues in the mail and I enjoyed browsing for goodies on the internet. My last pregnancy was very public on Facebook, from the first pregnancy test to delivery day. But I will say that while I'd never jump through so many hoops to hide a pregnancy, it is unnerving to read about what she had to go through to do so.
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