Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, had an idea: would it be possible to hide her pregnancy from big data? Thinking about technology—the way we use it and the way it uses us—is her professional life’s work. Pregnant women, she knew, are a marketing gold mine; a pregnant woman’s marketing data is worth 15 times as much as the average person’s. Could Vertesi, a self-declared “conscientious objector” of Google ever since 2012, when they announced to users that they’d be able to read every email and chat, navigate all the human and consumer interactions having a baby would require and keep big data from ever finding out?
Here’s what she found: hiding from big data is so inconvenient and expensive that even Vertesi doesn’t recommend it as a lifestyle choice. (She presented her findings at the Theorizing the Web conference in New York last week.) So what does that mean for companies who say users can just “opt out” if they aren’t happy with (so-called) privacy policies? Can you be a person on the internet without sacrificing all your data to the Google Powers That Be? I talked to Vertesi about her experiment, its implications, and why hiding from big data can make you look like a criminal.