Opinion: Help, I am being stalked by online retailers who know if I’ve been sleeping – among other things

Have you ever had the experience of buying a present for a loved one at some website you’ve visited just once and then watching that same item pop up as an advertisement every time you pick up your laptop or smartphone? For weeks? Months? Years? Who hasn’t? — Pay online photo created by jannoon028 - www.freepik.com

Do you remember when Christmas shopping involved leaving your house? When you could walk around a downtown department store or perhaps the local mall and nobody kept tabs on you, noticed how often you visited certain outlets, what you looked at or what you didn’t look at? I do. It was glorious.

Why, I could put a shopping list in my pocket and only I, the actual author of said shopping list, knew what was on it. Well, aside from Santa Claus or possibly the Lord Almighty. How cool was that? We called it privacy. What a quaint concept that was. It implied that while I might be well aware that I was in the market for a “Tickle Me Elmo” for one of the kids or a matching plaid scarf and mittens for the spouse or even fuzzy bedroom slippers for my mother-in-law, large anonymous corporations or their agents did not necessarily have to know. It was empowering, this privacy thing and we took it for granted.

Ah, those were the days.

Even now, as I write these words, I am confident that the next time I use an online search engine or show up at a certain shopping website that sounds suspiciously like a South American rainforest, I will be presented with gift ideas that correlate with the word “privacy” such as a fake beard or a hotel peephole cover. Forget China and their efforts to use TikTok, the social media video app, to harvest data on the US and other nations. Their spies will just have to get in line behind good old American retailers. Have you ever had the experience of buying a present for a loved one at some website you’ve visited just once and then watching that same item pop up as an advertisement every time you pick up your laptop or smartphone? For weeks? Months? Years? Who hasn’t? We are all haunted by such invasions. Granted, sometimes it can be useful as a reminder to reorder but mostly, it’s just creepy.

The classic case now taught in college marketing classes was, of course, Target and expectant mothers. Years ago, some enterprising data analysts figured out how to tell if a female customer is pregnant by what stuff she buys. It’s useful information given all the accessories the retailer stocks specifically for pregnancy. So somebody wrote a computer program that targeted purchases of body lotion (second trimester stretch marks) followed by cotton balls, scent-free soap, hand sanitisers and washcloths. Ka-ching, pregnancy. Soon, Target was sending coupons for diapers with congratulatory messages before the women had even told their friends or family. You know when this first happened? That was 2012. If the public was outraged by this snooping, it has a funny way of showing it by, you know, not showing it.

Of course, data analysis has invaded just about everything we do over the last decade. Politicians love to know which candidate websites we visit (expect never-ending solicitations for donations after you do). Fast food chains like McDonald’s know your purchasing habits, Mr and Mrs Chicken Nuggets and a large order of fries. And Netflix? You might as well set up a camera in the bedroom. The popular streaming service sure knows when you’ve been sleeping — or when you’ve been up late watching Season 5 of The Crown. The insurance industry is big in data mining, too, but then you knew when it came to invasive or obnoxious policies, the folks in insurance would be right there.

My youngest child, a recent college graduate, recognised the opportunity posed by all this spying, and he enrolled this fall in an online “boot camp” on the subject, which he expects to finish shortly before Christmas. Hopefully, we will soon unleash him on the world so he can profit from this plague. But not before the company providing his crash course in data analysis personally pulverizes me with Facebook advertisements on the benefits of enrolling in their classes. Hello? Do they expect me to send them other family members? Nah, I think it’s just to break my will to resist. Like Star Trek’s fictional Borg, they are taking over my entire species through assimilation: “Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.”

Meanwhile, I shall tune into TV’s Fox & Friends, where I can be confident the reliably cloying hosts will find whatever response any Democrats in DC make to TikTok woefully inadequate and will continue to see the app as a leading threat to national security — or at least digital opium to those teens who like to produce short videos on dancing, modelling, hair and makeup. All I ask is that we reserve a little annoyance for all the privacy lost to big corporations in recent years. Big retailers didn’t need elves or reindeer or magic to know whether all Americans have been naughty or nice. I’d put that “ask” on my wish list, but if I see it duplicated on my next news feed or a “people who look at privacy also look at” recommendation, I’m likely to go full Ebenezer Scrooge. – Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service

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