Good-Bye, Private Parts
Thanks to GPS and Store Tracking, Privacy Is Gone
Have you ever been skinny-dipping? It’s just about the best feeling in the world: fretless, grin-in-your-skin freedom.
I was 11 years old and taking a bare dip in my backyard pool when I heard rustling in the neighbors’ tree and realized their pre-teen son was spying on me. Outraged and embarrassed, I skittered inside to tell my mother. I’ve never forgotten what she said:
“Eh, let him look. Why should he stop you from being at ease in your own yard? Don’t give him that power.”
The notion was radical — that I could simply choose not to feel violated by such an invasion of privacy. That I could disregard the peeping perv and refuse to waste energy guarding the confidential information his little eyeballs were gathering for who-knows-what degenerate purpose.
I’ve summoned that outlook countless times since then — when the tampon drops from my purse during a business lunch, the pharmacy clerk loudly inquires about my rash, and the neighbors hear me yelling at my kids. Eh, I think. Let ’em look.
But it’s harder than it used to be.
From the auto-fill feature in our Web browsers to the cameras installed at stoplights, our privacy is receding faster than a naked girl can scramble from the deep end of an exposed swimming pool into the folds of a blessed towel. And there’s more at stake than just a pre-adolescent fanny flash.
The New York Times recently ran a story explaining how Target analyzes its customers’ purchasing trends to predict when they’re pregnant, then sends them coupons for baby items — sometimes before they’ve even told their own family members the good news.
Creepy … or convenient?
Certainly, such personalized advertising enhances our shopping experience, just as Google makes our Web-surfing experience easier by tracking our browsing histories and offering up ads tailored to our interests. It’s almost like … we’re being appreciated as unique individuals!
“I love when Hulu says, ‘Wendy, we have a new show that you will like,’” admits a friend of mine.
But spying-for-the-sake-of-selling can be unnerving — like when the ads on my Facebook page flip from shoes and swimwear to Wicked tickets and “Best of Broadway” CDs a mere moments after I type “West Side Story” in my status.
“I don’t want anybody making decisions for me, not even the ads I choose to read,” says another friend. “It makes me feel like a lamb being led to slaughter. Where does it stop? How much do they know?”
A lot, it seems. Your cell phone GPS makes your whereabouts trackable. Your purchases are monitored via supermarket loyalty cards and digital coupons. And aerial drones may soon be able to peer into your, ahem, backyard pool.
“People really don’t understand how serious it is,” says an only slightly paranoid but exceedingly well-informed friend who reads up on this stuff. (Want to freak yourself out? Visit collusion.toolness.org to see — in real time — the companies tracking your personal movement across the Web.) “Basically, privacy is gone. It’s over, and there’s no getting it back.”
But in the spirit of my mother’s advice, I have to ask: Must we really care? If you’re not 1) seriously depraved, or 2) in the Witness Protection Program, then what’s really lost when privacy as we know it comes to an end?
There’s the possibility that our once-private data will be used against us in hiring situations, child-custody cases, or by insurance companies denying us coverage based on our repeated Google searches for “chest pains.”
I think the greatest loss, though, is that feeling of fretless freedom. Of being self-contained, unguarded, and — every once in a while, just for a few minutes — utterly lost to the world. If you’ve never been skinny-dipping, I suggest you do it now. And do it quick. Before the rustling starts.