Data & Society > our work > academic journal > How Evasion Matters: Implications from Surfacing Data Tracking Online

Interface | 08.04.15

How Evasion Matters: Implications from Surfacing Data Tracking Online

Janet Vertesi

D&S advisor Janet Vertesi essays her presentation from Theorizing the Web 2014:

The past five years have seen the rise and expansion of a new infrastructural layer to the Internet. Inspired by the unprecedented success of Google Ad-words and Facebook’s “social” data collection regime, this middle layer has expanded to include a plethora of bots, cookies, trackers, canvases, and other data sniffers intent on recording user clicks, likes, and purchases. Contemporary consumers do not even need to buy: browsing, searching, or clicking on a quiz can all be indicators that a user is looking for new shoes or a winter coat, triggering targeted ads. In the world of contemporary Internet companies, personal data reigns supreme.

This is not only an online phenomenon. Offline, too, loyalty card programs and credit card purchase data translate into targeted mail catalogs and direct-to-consumer marketing programs. Across social media companies and third-party data brokers, certain consumers are designated high-value targets. For example, according to a Financial Times report, information pertaining to prospective new mothers, who are likely to be making new and lasting brand choices, can sell for much higher prices than everyday users. Attempts to coordinate online and offline datasets to better identify such high-value targets continue apace, leading personal data gleaned through commercial services to exchange hands among brokers for high prices.

I have spent the past three years attempting to evade various aspects of this middle-layer of the Internet; first, through studious avoidance of Google-related products and services, and most recently through concealing the impending arrival of a family member from data detection. I undertook this latter practice as an experiment in infrastructural inversion: an attempt to make visible the embedded nature of this tracking infrastructure in daily life, as well as the values and assumptions that such technologies make about everyday users. While I have described the experiments elsewhere, resisting these data dragnets presented several key findings relevant to the study of Internet infrastructures and behaviors online that are important for our research community to address.

In this essay, I suggest three implications for our continuing studies of life online and offline that arose from practices of data-gathering evasion: first, considering the server as an actor in online interactions; second, reframing practices of resistance accordingly; and third, a resulting novel framework for personal data privacy policy and design.

Read or download the whole article at Interface.

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