Too close for comfort: the hazards of online shopping

I go through intense phases with fashion, as with many other things. All of a sudden I wake up one day and decide that I simply must buy a pair of white jeans or find a t-shirt with the solitary word ‘SHIT’ in loud type written on it. At one point I had an intense urge to find a t-shirt with the reggae legend Peter Tosh on it. This brainwave was prompted by seeing Deni Hines perform on morning television while wearing a particularly appealing Peter t-shirt. These kinds of fashion inspirations don’t strike me that often but when they do they come with an intensity that borders on the fanatical. After many hours spent casting my eyes through every godforsaken online t-shirt store on earth, I finally gave up. I have to say there are some hellishly bad t-shirts out there.

I am now what you would call an online window shopper; I like to browse but I rarely buy – a tentative online shopper. The thing that prevents me from buying online is that I know, by a personal law of averages, that the most promising of garments can look simply dreadful on. When shopping on foot I usually step into a store, maybe try something on and put it back, then leave, giving no more thought to that shirt that looked so promising on the rack but that on me looked like a cross between a lace curtain, a balloon and a skivvy.

Online shopping has given me shops I can dart in and out of in the comfort of my own home without having to deal with scarily friendly helicopter salespeople. But one of the consequences of this kind of bland everyday online consumer activity is that once you enter a shop and peruse the goods the shop and the goods that have aroused your interest have a tendency to stalk you everywhere you go online. The shirt that I looked at a week ago keeps popping up in ads on totally unrelated web pages, revolving like some terrible glitch in my memory. If a salesperson from a shop I visited in the shopping centres of suburbia came to my door brandishing the clothes I had perused in store I would be beyond frightened. I would hunker down and turn off the lights and pretend there was no-one at home.

Online shopping is a different kettle of fish altogether. Julie Matlin, a mother of two from Montreal, knows what I’m talking about. She was obsessively followed by a pair of shoes. In a 2010 article in the New York Times on retargeting ads Julie is quoted as saying, ‘For days or weeks, every site I went to seemed to be showing me ads for those shoes … it’s a little creepy, especially if you don’t know what’s going on.’ To be honest I’m with Julie on that front, I didn’t know what the hell was going on either. I started to feel as paranoid as a dope fiend; not only were they watching me but those shoes/jeans/handbags were starting to follow me.

I know I’m not the only one slightly paranoid about this. A friend told me that her flatmate was having Jenny Craig meals delivered but was considering giving it up and cooking her own meals instead. My friend was slightly freaked out when suddenly she was flooded by online ads for, you guessed it, Jenny Craig. I was about to suggest that she take a look behind the TV to check for microphones, or even take note if her mobile had been remotely switched on to record. You never know what those bloodsuckers have in mind when they say they are going to think outside the box and find the point of difference in order to deliver ads to ‘a receptive, action-defined audience’.

It turns out that Julie Matlin wasn’t only stalked by shoes, she was also hounded by a dieting service she had used online. ‘They are still following me around, and it makes me feel fat,’ she said. Apparently, all of this is what is called behavioural marketing. The name is Orwellian enough to make me want to run for the hills, live in a teepee and drink my own homemade recycled urine water. I came across this particularly good description of the process:

Websites drop ‘cookies’, or small pieces of data, onto consumers’ hard drives to keep track of user preferences, the contents of their electronic shopping carts, their searches, and details on where and when users click on a site. Websites also collect visitors’ IP addresses  – the numerical code that identifies each computer connected to the Web and its geographic location. With this raw data, an advertising network can use software and analytics to identify consumers with like interests and web-surfing habits. The networks then sell advertisers access to these niche audiences.

This cheerful explanation really says only one thing: let’s grab as much info as we can and run for it, we’ll make a packet! Desktop cookies have previously presented an obstacle for the more visionary marketers intent on cross-device world domination. Mobile phones don’t use them and on a desktop they can be blocked. A recent article in TheNew York Times describes the way a new company, Drawbridge, records online behavioural patterns and, through statistical modelling, determines which different devices belong to the same person. For an example of how all this works, have a look at their website, which will leave you none the wiser. Basically it means that an ad for the shirt you looked at on a retail website on your desktop could appear on your mobile phone some time later. Apparently the connections between devices are done with anonymous identifiers.

Which brings me to my next point. The marriage of computer science and marketing may very well be a dream come true for business but for some of us it looks an awful lot like a creepy kind of tracking most of us can’t even begin to understand.

In the Times article, the chief operating officer at Drawbridge, Eric Rosenblum, wasn’t keen on calling what his company did ‘tracking’. If it had another name I’d be interested to know it.  Personally I’m partial to ‘behavioural connectivity’. The word ‘tracking’ raises the spectre of Big Brother, a theme we have become familiar with thanks to Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum suggests we reframe our perception of mobile phones:

Consider leaving your phone home a lot if you have to have one and if you don’t have to have one, consider not having one. It’s a tracking device for a global tracking network that also happens to make phone calls.

Many of us have taken up new technologies with enthusiasm. But the Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Professor Peter Higgs, came up with his award-winning theory with nothing other than a fountain pen. Forget calculators or desktop computers, he used good old-fashioned thinking and a pen.

The problem for the rest of us is a complex one: we want access to what technology brings us – the ease and pleasure of instant connections – and yet we want our privacy preserved.

At a 29C3 talk, Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee who was subject to a US federal leak criminal investigation, posed two questions, which go to the heart of the matter: ‘Is it an advancement in our society to give up our privacy because we are so enamoured with technology and want advertisers and firms to “market and share us” with all the digital data we give them and they have on us – opted in or not?’, and, ‘Is our privacy now “fair game” to commercial and government interests?’

If the answer is yes to both of these questions then we have to wonder what the future will bring and ponder how our personal information will potentially be used.

What has come to pass is a general kind of acceptance, a normalisation: yes, we have adopted this technology and for the sake of it we are willing to accept that our privacy will be diminished, if not totally compromised. Well before Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitrus broke Edward Snowden’s NSA story, Greenwald talked about the most pernicious aspect of mass surveillance: that is, it tends to be a one-way mirror. Greenwald writes, ‘If I am able to know everything about you, what you do, what you think, what you fear, where you go, what your aspirations are, the bad things you do, the bad things you think about, and you know nothing about me I have immense leverage over you in all kinds of ways. I can think about how to control you, I can blackmail you, I can figure out what your weaknesses are, I can manipulate you in all sorts of ways.’

What Edward Snowden did was to raise the possibility, for a moment, of a two-way mirror; that we, as citizens and consumers, might know what governments and business are doing with our data. It’s definitely something to keep in mind the next time you feel hounded by a pair of shorts or a nice t-shirt.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ella Humphreys is a graphic designer, barista, pool lifeguard, cleaner, part-time law student who likes good writing.

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