It’s good not to have Internet tracking you for a while

I just spent a glorious week camping and hiking on a remote mountain, home to 3,000-year-old trees living 10,000 feet above sea level. Oh, and by “remote,” I mean no cell phone or internet coverage for miles and miles in all directions.

The first day was a little weird without the constant stream of online updates and messages tailored just for me (thanks to sophisticated algorithms and media quants), nothing but the sound of rustling leaves, babbling brooks and birds singing merrily overhead. By the second day, much to my surprise, I actually felt liberated, free from the constant tracking, targeting and profiling by a “they” I don’t even know.

Every time we use the Internet or turn on our smart phones, nearly a hundred data points are captured and calculated to better serve our individual needs, and they’re cumulative over time, too. Isn’t that nice?

What time we wake up, when we leave for work and come home and the route we choose — where and how long we take for lunch, how fast we drive. Topics we search and sites we visit on the Internet, what we write in our emails and post on Facebook. These are just a few of the 100 or so data points tracked and stored about us at any given moment.

Fancy algorithms compute all these points to reveal comprehensive individual profiles so that the ads and other unsolicited messages we receive will be appropriately matched to our interests, habits, strengths and weaknesses. Isn’t that nice?

I’m particularly excited about geofencing and can’t wait till it’s in full swing. When a user is in a geofenced area, like an airport terminal or ski resort, he or she might get a text message from an airline or outdoor gear brand offering special deals right then and there. Isn’t that nice?

Bearing down upon us fast is in-store geofencing. If you’re a tracked Coke or Pepsi drinker who’s wandering down the beverage aisle at the grocery store — beep — here comes a text message from their competitors offering discounts on their products. You get to try something new at a special price just for you. Isn’t that nice?

Data-driven advertising is reshaping our world, giving us those feel-good-it’s-all-about-me inputs we crave. Does it get any better?

But wait. Author Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, argues in his new book, “The Daily You,” that today’s hyper-tailored media technology is actually minimizing rather than increasing the individual consumer’s power.

“Marketers and others can begin to show people ads and discounts, or different kinds of news and entertainment, based upon the categories that they’ve placed those people in,” he said during an interview in a recent issue of Adweek magazine. “But (those people) often have no clue about it and have never given permission and might not even agree with them.”

But wouldn’t we rather have ads that match our interests and are relevant to us instead of random ads like days of old?

“Political marketers will begin to make inferences about people and political beliefs based upon their activities in the larger society — the kinds of cars you use, the kinds of vacations you take,” Turow continued in the interview. “Down the line, one can see candidates spinning different ideological positions based on what they think you want to hear about them.”

While I actually don’t mind receiving ads relevant to my interests, I would like to know who is accessing my data points and the resulting cumulative profile and what else it could be used for. Woolite discounts, no problem, but what about identity thieves, scam artists and governments both foreign and domestic?

“I think what marketers ought to be concerned with is a situation where people have no level of participation in the information about them that is being distributed,” Turow concluded in Adweek.

So what are the tech-savvy, yet privacy-concerned individuals to do when not willing to be tracked, profiled, categorized and targeted?

A good place to start is privacychoice.org, which lists hundreds of companies that track our Internet and smart phone data points. The site offers a free privacy scan and downloadable Do-Not-Track bookmark that can be used to opt out of targeting from our data points by more than 100 companies. That barely scratches the surface, but it’s a good start.

Of course, there are always occasional getaways to our nation’s few remaining no-tracking wilderness areas — for now anyway — when we just need a fresh breath of freedom. And toasted marshmallows just taste better from an open campfire than from the microwave. But there’s probably an app for that, too.

Krystyn Hartman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) most days. Or on the side of a remote mountain beyond the reach of a cellphone tower. Just follow the trail of marshmallows.


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