I am an extremely private person. I don't broadcast my location, I use privacy tools to keep advertisers from tracking me, and I almost never give any app access to Facebook. Of course, a lot of people don't have a problem with living publicly. I've always wondered what the benefits and downfalls of doing so are, so I decided to give it a three-week test run. Here's how it went.
We've talked a lot about the importance of your privacy online. Your data is often used for ads you don't know about, databases you've never heard of, and used to find out where you are and what you're doing.
Some of the things I consider "radical public living" experiments are probably commonplace to you, but even so, my experience may give you a better insight into what you're gaining — and potentially losing — with your choices. Let's start by looking at my experiences with location-sharing every move I made and then move on to the data collected by my browser. Finally, we'll close by handing all this information over to a third party and seeing what type of demographic picture gets formed.
Broadcasting Every Move In the Real World
Location-sharing apps like Foursquare have been popular for a while, but I've never ventured down that path because I didn't like the idea of my friends (and strangers) knowing where I was, what I was eating or who I was with. It just seems like an odd thing to broadcast to the world to me. However, I picked a few apps and started doing it anyway. Here's a breakdown of what I signed up for:
- Foursquare for checking in to public places and letting everyone know where I am.
- Forecast is a tool that checks you in automatically, which was important because I forgot to do it at first.
- Banjo is an app that aggregates a variety of social feeds to update friends and strangers about where you are and what you're doing.
- I set Locations/Permissions/Notifications for Twitter, Instagram, Facebook so they would display my location info publicly and interact properly with Banjo.
- I also set up Spotify Sharing so that everyone knows what I'm listening to at every point in the day.
The theory behind these choices is simple. I picked the most popular services because that's what all my friends use. Then I used Banjo to make sure strangers know what I'm doing, and enabled location-sharing for all the apps I use (including the recently downloaded Instagram, because what's one more social network?). Finally, since I spend most of my day in front of the computer listening to music, I enabled the Spotify sharing feature for Facebook so everyone knows what I'm listening to all the time. So, what happened? Let's look.
The Good, The Bad And The Weird Of Living In Public
The whole purpose of broadcasting your location is so that friends can find you easily when you're out on the town (or, you know, grocery shopping). It took me a few days before I was really comfortable checking in to places, but with Banjo telling me when friends were near me, I started to see why this could be helpful in some cases.
As someone who works from home, I need to get out of the house often, but sometimes after being here all day it's hard to get the willpower to leave. One night sitting at home I got a notification that my cousin had checked in at a local bar. I don't really talk to my cousin as much as I should, but I decided to give her a call since she was close, and I met up with her. This was a prime example of how location sharing is supposed to work to your benefit.
A few similar circumstances happened as the weeks went on, including meeting up with a friend I didn't know was in town and sitting next to a friend I probably wouldn't have noticed was also at the cinema. Kind of cool, right? Then, I got a little dose of the bad.
On a Saturday afternoon I decided I really didn't want to meet up with a friend for a planned dinner, so I texted him and said I was feeling a bit under the weather and let it be. Then, later that evening, I checked in at restaurant for dinner, not thinking twice about the repercussions of this decision. Within 20 minutes of checking in I got a text message from him noting that I must be feeling better. It took me a minute to respond and I had to finagle the truth a little more to retain our friendship. Thankfully, this was the only big mistake I made, but it's a notable one. First off, lying to friends is stupid. Second, if you're going to do so, don't go out and broadcast what you're doing to the world.
Of course, it's not all good or bad. Some things that happen when everyone knows where you are can be a little weird. I had cookies delivered to me by a neighbour when I checked in at home one afternoon; I had an ex-girlfriend pop into a restaurant I was eating at to say "hi"; and on several occasions I had friends ask me how events were before I even mentioned I'd been to them.
Sharing my music listening habits was even stranger. For the most part, it was an uneventful process, and I occasionally got a comment like "That's a sweet album". But after a stint of listening to lots of sad songs in a row, I had two people send me text messages to ask if I was doing OK. I was doing fine, but in retrospect, I can see where the worries came from. Anyone that listens to that much Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen in an evening probably needs at least a high five.
And so it went over the course of three weeks. Some good experiences, some bad, and some just plain weird things happened. New research suggests that social networks make us lonely, and while I can see where that comes from, it's hard to deny how location sharing can also create spontaneous meetups. While I was sitting at home working or just watching a movie by myself, I would see updates from friends in the area. I would think to myself "I should go and do something", and then promptly ignore that social call and return to my solitary behaviour. In turn, I would feel a little guilty for not leaving the house, but not lonely.
Location-sharing is just one facet of my public experiment. The other involved allowing any website to track who I am, what I'm doing and where I'm at. This essentially required me to remove a few privacy-protecting extensions in Chrome and let the web do its thing for a few weeks. Photo by Kai Hendry.
Letting Websites Track And Collect All The Data They Want
We've talked extensively about how everyone's trying to track you online, and we've offered lots of great tips to keep it from happening. I've followed most of those suggestions in the past, including:
- Privacy Controls on Facebook to ensure nothing was leaked out I didn't want.
- Adblock Plus to block ads from tracking me.
- Disconnect for Chrome to keep social network widgets from tracking me everywhere.
- Ghostery to find and block the bugs that track my online movements.
- Proxy Servers to make sure nobody knows where I really am.
- Using secondary Email Addresses for Testing and Purchases to cut down on spam and remain somewhat anonymous.
I don't really do anything illegal, but I've always had an issue with being used as a marketing guinea pig. But for this experiment I did my best to make sure my information isn't private by disabling the above extensions and settings. This helps guarantee that my actions are 100 per cent public.
Data Collected as Shown by Collusion and Ghostery
The amount of data collected about me in Collusion and Ghostery is impossible to assess in a meaningful way, but rest assured my browsing data was being sent to all ends of the Earth. Collusion's map (shown above) has cookies going everywhere, and Ghostery maxes out its bug tracking at 820 different bits of information going to 820 different sites. My data might only be worth $US4.81 to Facebook, but that data still defines who I am. From my point of view the only end result from all this is personalised ads.
Experiences With Personalised Ads And Real Email Addresses
No matter how long they've been around, personalised advertisements still creep me out. I realise it's part of the ecosystem that helps companies grow, but at the same time, it's strange to me that just because I look at some housewares I have to suddenly be inundated with other housewares.
Which is the other problem. I did not actually click on any ads and purchase anything, but ads did remind me of things that existed that I wanted. For instance, while shopping to replace a bunch of furniture in my living room, I was hitting up all kinds of furniture websites and looking at a wide variety of different new stuff. When all was said and done, I was happy with the results, but something was missing. Then, like a message sent from heaven, Facebook ads started telling me about rugs. I didn't buy any of the rugs advertised, but I did eventually buy one from elsewhere.
I also switched all of my online accounts, shops and bills over to my Google email address, just to get a better glimpse at how Gmail's ad system works. As you can see from the image on the left, it turns out Gmail thinks I really like pizza, as pizza ads were the most popular to pop up in all of emails. For what it's worth, I do rather enjoy pizza, but this still seems a little excessive and certainly didn't make me want to order from any of these places.
In the end, the most curious thing to me is that the more personalised the ads became, the less effective they were at selling a specific product. They could absolutely trigger a "buying state" from my brain where I wanted to purchase something, but I had no interest in the specific product being mentioned. Granted, this experiment made me very aware of the targeted ads and how they worked. They could have been more effective if I wasn't thinking about them so much.
The Shocking Portrait Built From This Data
None of this privacy talk really means much unless all this data forms a cohesive picture. To figure out what type of person I'm projecting myself as to both friends and advertisers, I turned over my computer and phone to a complete stranger, my neighbour's sister, and gave her 30 minutes to take a look at all the public material to see what she thought of me. Here's what she has to say:
Based on your check-ins and location info I'd say you either work from home, are unemployed, or you only check-in at places where you might run into someone. Probably work from home and not unemployed though because you seem to eat out a lot. The fact you don't check-in with anyone else or have any pictures of people makes me think you're single. Well, that and the fact it doesn't say anything on Facebook. It also seems like you and your friends drink a lot because that's the only place you seem to check in at. Actually, you don't seem to leave the house much at all except for bars or restaurants.
From the advertisements on your browser that I could see I would guess you might have just remodeled your house or you're thinking about doing so. You buy movies, music (based on the amount of songs you listen to), video games, and pizza. Apparently you had some foot disease at some point. The Collusion thing also makes me think you're interested in technology. As a demographic target I'd say you're in that 25-35 range [to be clear, she saw me in person, so the age range was probably pretty easy to assess], probably educated, unmarried, maybe lower-middle class. Oh, and you're in Denver. That's kind of cheating but it's pretty obvious.
A lot of her assumptions are correct (although I haven't had any foot diseases, I didn't think I liked eating out, and I'm not an alcoholic) and they echo pretty much the same thing demographic niche that Google has me placed in (you can see your own here). Google, however, also thinks I'm also interested in "Candy & Sweets" for some reason. Photo by thierry ehrmann.
How This Changes My Perception Of Privacy
Three weeks isn't enough time to gauge any lasting mental effects. I'm not aiming to cry wolf on any of these services, but I can say with certainty that this experience has convinced me to return to my private life with a few tweaks. Location sharing, for instance, isn't all bad news. While I can't imagine myself getting into the idea of being a Mayor in Foursquare it's still an interesting way to keep in touch with friends, especially when you're working from home and those spontaneous moments of running into somebody are rare.
However, as far as the more open apps are concerned — like Banjo, which just broadcasts where I am to everyone — I've already deleted them from my phone. I've also stopped broadcasting location info for photos and Twitter. As I see it, I'm already a random person wandering around my neighbourhood; I don't see the point in being a random person with a publicly available profile for all to see.
As for my web browsing, I'll be returning to my hidden ways. I see the potential value in personalised ads, but they didn't really do anything except prompt me to think about making purchases I didn't need to make for products I didn't care about. I'm also so averse to direct ads that I'm actually less likely to buy something I see an ad for.
So is it really important to care about your privacy? Yeah, it is. We all know, for example, that broadcasting your location when you're not at home is problematic (for obvious reasons), and if you do that in full view of everyone, it's even worse. The key is locking down that information and using it specifically with friends you know and trust then leaving the rest of the data off public profiles.
How about you? Have you given in and let your privacy slip away? Share your experiences in the comments.