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Katharine MacDonald outside her home in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. (Nathan Rochford FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Katharine MacDonald outside her home in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. (Nathan Rochford FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Big Data is watching you. Has online spying gone too far? Add to ...

When Katharine MacDonald got pregnant for the first time, she went, naturally, to the Internet and started flinging questions at Google. “Everything I could think of,” the 25-year-old masters student, who lives in Charlottetown, recalls. She got answers, but also, almost instantly, Big Data fired back with pop-up ads about baby clothes and breast pumps. “I was still only eight weeks,” she says. “The Internet knew before any of my friends and family.”

But then, she lost the baby. And Big Data didn’t register the news. Even when she purposely searched “miscarriage” over and over again, hoping someone in cyberspace would get the message, the ads kept coming. “There’s got to be some way to stop it,” she says with a sigh. “But I haven’t figured it out.”

After MacDonald lost her second pregnancy at 27 weeks, she realized that the ads for children’s toys and clothing that kept popping up on her screen were based on the Internet’s assumption that she was already a mom with a toddler.

“You are reminded every, every day, all the time, that this happened to you, and what you’re missing,” MacDonald says. Facebook, a place where she sought comfort from friends, became just like one more tactless acquaintance, cheerfully asking after the baby whose loss she was grieving. The information she’d traded away online with those initial Google searches had drifted beyond her control, impossible to reclaim, or even reset.

Last spring, when Canadian Janet Vertesi, a sociology professor at Princeton University, detailed the extreme measures she took to conceal her pregnancy from Big Data, the experiment revealed not just the full-time plotting that hiding requires, but also how, unless we all plan to live under rocks, it’s an impossible endeavour to sustain. Vertesi only managed it with a full-time defence, by insisting on Web-silence among family and friends, and buying big-ticket baby items with cash.

Whether we like it or not, our quiet angst and seminal moments are the spoils in an information-trading game. Big Data, the industry term for all the coded information collected online, is an indiscreet, and often tactless, snoop. Turn 55 on Facebook, and between Happy Birthday messages, Big Data will decide you’re overdue for a walk-in bathtub. Casually Google bridal gowns and the Internet jumps into the role of overbearing wedding planner.

We can hardly claim to be innocents, given the ever-repeating debates about Google’s creeping reach or Facebook’s privacy incursions – the latest assault, announced on Monday, was a new advertising platform called Atlas, that will allow advertisers to use Facebook data to target users outside Facebook. (For its part, Google earned a slap this week from Germany’s data commissioner, who ordered the search engine to get express permission before using personal information to create user profiles.) We get riled up when a dating site such as OkCupid admits to surreptitiously playing a “social experiment” on its users, but a nanosecond later we’re back on our phones, surfing for romantic interests. The people who are using real baby pictures to create fake families on Instagram are undeniably creepy, but images on the photo-sharing site keep coming. Cellphones spew out data – where you’ve been, who you’ve called – like “digital exhaust,” as Internet researcher Ronald Deibert puts it, but we never turn them off.

We knowingly enter into a relationship with Big Data with every click we make. But tolerating targeted pop-up ads, as critics such as Vertesi point out, doesn’t confer a carte blanche application of the full sum of our digital selves. We should consider our return on the transaction. If we don’t put a high price on our privacy, it will go for a bargain. Treasure it, and the companies so eager to learn our secrets will be more careful to earn our trust.

“The business model rests on spying on users, and you can’t change that at its core without disrupting that model” says Deibert, director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Black Code, which details, in alarming terms, the omniscient sweep of prying eyes, both public and private.

Rather than scurrying for cover, Deibert makes a case for consumers standing up – demanding accountability for the use of information, more transparency from the first Web click, and clear legal frameworks on the role of surveillance by both companies and governments. While these questions take on more weight in countries without clear protections on free speech, Deibert points out that even liberal democracies surreptitiously break the rules, as Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the U.S. National Security Agency revealed. Unguarded, data is the purse forgotten on a park bench; a good deed in the right hands, a snatch and grab in the wrong ones.

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