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Algorithms continue to surprise us with what they can figure out about our interests or activities, but they also propose a privacy problem, explores Stuart White.
These days I am amazed that no sooner have I searched online for a Buddha garden statue than I am subsequently inundated for weeks with all things remotely Buddha-‘ish’, from training videos by Deepak Chopra to Sanskrit tea towels, not to mention assorted Buddhas in a myriad shapes, sizes and materials. And it doesn’t stop there. I have also been targeted for the sort of books, jewelry and sports gear Buddha idolaters are likely to want, even though that purchase was a gift. What technology has become really good at is tracking me from site to site, monitoring my actions and then compiling them into an algorithmic database. Armed with this information it assesses and categorises me accordingly and then engages with me by tempting me with specific advertisements, personalised content etc..
For some this may feel like the ultimate convenience - a free personal shopper to make your purchasing preferences for you, making you a shoppee rather than a shopper, but for others like me it does leave us with a creepy feeling that we are being watched (which we are) and that it’s not ok!
Talking about what is not ok, my soon-to-be four year old daughter vehemently refuses to wear certain outfits which I have bought. There is a gorgeous two-piece, trousers and top which I bought from the stylish, quality French children’s clothing brand, Sergeant Major, which I can’t get her to even try on. Regardless of what I tell her, she insists they are pajamas and although she doesn’t express it verbally, I can tell by the look on her face that she would rather die than be seen in public wearing them. I, on the other hand, think the outfit is adorable. In a sense I acted no better than the internet’s artificial intelligence by piecing together data on her and making a decision about what I think she should wear – doesn’t mean she will or that I should make her, but I failed to factor in her opinion.
What and when children start deciding for themselves is an interesting debate. When my twins were born, we had long discussion on whether we or others could post photographs of them on mediums like Facebook and anywhere else that may result in them having an internet presence. We are in an age where many parents share almost everything online about their children. But how will these children feel when they are older? Will they love that their life has been publicly posted for them to cherish or will they be furious that all is laid bare (literally, as is often the case) for future employers, work colleagues and others to see?
I personally post very little online, privately at least. This is my choice regarding what I want to give of myself to others, especially those who don’t know me. I don’t post my feelings, daily activities or anything private because that’s how I want it to stay – private. I do put my shopping habits online and look what’s happening with that! Instead of reaching Nirvana, I‘m in the Buddhist equivalent of hell!
When a picture, status or piece of personal information is put up somewhere on the web, it is logged, archived and stored. If someone can legitimately find that information without compromising any user agreements, that is not a violation of your privacy on the internet because you are the one who put it out there in the first place – it is also why law enforcement can use your Facebook feed to track you down and apprehend you. Same goes for corporate data mining – nothing you put up on a social network hosted by someone else truly belongs to you anymore. Social media has been legally classified as exactly that and any and all posts can be held to the same standards as legitimate journalism.
It’s no secret that employers now carry out online searches on potential employees to check their history and get an angle on character etc. hoping that they will get some insight which will help them decide on their suitability for the organisation, how they will get on with other staff members etc. Employers want to know as much as they can about you, and the trail of activity you leave behind you on the Internet gives them a much more detailed view into your life than a carefully-worded CV does. Not much you can do about that as an applicant but as an employee you have some rights when it comes to private information being given to your employer.
There are employee privacy rights which are the rules that limit how extensively an employer can search an employee’s possessions or person; monitor their actions, speech, or correspondence; and know about their personal lives, especially but not exclusively in the workplace, though they vary from country to country. But the extent and nature of these protections have become a growing concern recently because of the increase in the use of social media and the internet. You may think that many of these means of communication are private, but in truth, there is hardly any real privacy to be had with them. You have effectively published them and thereby given authorisation to any Tom, Dick and Harriet to access them. Within an organisation, employers can usually search through anything that appears on company computers, and they can conduct wider searches of social media and the internet as well.
Going ‘off-grid’ is almost impossible in our digital world but remember that what you put out can be grist to anyone’s mill, including your potential future employer. Bottom line – your internet footprint is written in indelible ink. In my case I could return the statue if it didn’t suit but I’m forever a marked man in marketing terms. And in the meantime, in case anyone’s looking for a cute trouser suit for a little girl, please don’t contact me online!