I was chatting with a friend about the challenges of keeping the destination of her holidays secret from a certain acquaintance, because of a comment somebody else had written on her Facebook page.
This exchange reminded me of an experiment of sorts, from a few years ago. Professor Vertesi, who was pregnant at the time, decided to keep her pregnancy a secret from online trackers, such as social networking platforms or search engine providers. She went to great lengths to achieve this, as described, here.
Vertesi posted no pregnancy related social media updates, including photos with a visible bump. She also used a private browser, Tor, to check baby-related websites. Online purchases were done via a dedicated e-mail address, on a private server, paid for with vouchers that had been purchased with cash, and delivered to a locker.
She also adapted her offline behaviour. She made all purchases in cash, and forewent all loyalty programmes (and associated discounts and offers).
That is, avoiding behavioural profiling required a certain level of technical knowledge, and came at some cost and inconvenience. Moreover, the reliance on cash for high-value purchases, likely rose suspicion and brought her to the attention of law enforcement officers:
(A) warning sign behind the cashier informed… that the store “reserves the right to limit the daily amount of prepaid card purchases and has an obligation to report excessive transactions to the authorities.”
In addition to changing her behaviour, and facing costs, suspicion and inconvenience, Vertesi also had to ask her friends and relatives to not post anything about the pregnancy, online. And while her acquaintances agreed in principle, their limited technical knowledge undermined her goal:
For example, seven months in, my uncle sent me a Facebook message congratulating me on my pregnancy. My response was downright rude: I deleted the thread and unfriended him immediately. When I emailed to ask why he did it, he explained, “I didn’t put it on your wall.” Another family member who reached out on Facebook chat a few weeks later exclaimed, “I didn’t know that a private message wasn’t private!”
In summary, our online identities are the accumulation of our conscious online and offline behaviours, automated tracking, and the behaviours of those around us.
Legal mechanisms such as the ability to opt-out of online services offer some level of protection, in theory. However, in practice, evading online tracking comes at great personal cost, inconvenience and risk. Moreover, it requires sophisticated knowledge of technology, and the active cooperation of others (which, in turn, may lack the technical knowledge or the motivation to support our efforts).