A Creepy Recommendation
Imagine you're in a book store.
It's not a particularly big one, but there are enough books for it to be pretty daunting.
You're not really sure what you want to read but you're confident you'll know it when you see it so you set about browsing through every book available.
Ten minutes in and you haven't found anything, but in the corner of your eye you see someone approaching.
They've got a name tag and a big smile on their face.
"Hi, can I help you find anything today?"
"I'm just looking, thanks" you say, your ‘go to’ response for any sales assistant.
"Ok, well I'll be hanging around if you need me - but before I go you might want to have a look at this guy, just came in last week and it's a great read!"
He hands you a book and goes on his way.
The interaction felt a little strange but the book he gave you looks really interesting.
In fact, it's exactly what you’d been looking for.
"Isn't that amazing," you say to yourself, "what a happy little coincidence."
The sales assistant is waiting for you as you approach the cash register. He's still got that big smile on his face and it gets even bigger once he realizes you're buying the book he recommended.
You leave the store feeling pretty happy. You got a book that looks good and the overall experience in the bookstore was a positive one.
A week or so passes and you're deep into the book when you notice something strange.
That guy from the bookstore… you've started to see him everywhere.
On the bus yesterday, in the supermarket the day before, at the same bar as you the other night.
At first you think of it as a funny coincidence... But then it starts to get weird.
You're seeing him every day, just lurking around near you.
He's always looking away when you notice him, though you're pretty sure he's watching you.
Then you wonder, did this guy give me the perfect book recommendation by chance, or has he been following me and watching me so that he knew exactly what to recommend me?
You head back to the bookstore and sure enough he's there and sure enough he's got another recommendation, and sure enough... It's a damn good one.
What does it all mean?
Would you have a problem with someone following you around all day, getting to know your day to day routine, learning your likes and dislikes so that they could exploit that information to sell you products?
They would track where you shop, where you work, what you buy, where you eat, what movies you like, who you hang out with, what your hobbies are, what music you like etc...
For most of us this is our current reality.
Software companies that offer online services are tracking what you do and exchanging that information among themselves to build of hundreds or even thousands of data points on millions of people.
The information they have on you can be used to better target ads at you, which might seem useful on the surface, but could also be considered manipulative.
They could knowingly or unknowingly be targeting compulsions that you have and are generally pushing a consumerist/materialist lifestyle, which is known to be bad for your mental health, society on the whole, and the planet.
The information they collect can also be used to influence our democratic processes and has been used for this purpose in this past.
I won't go into the details here, but Cambridge Analytica is a company that did exactly that after harvesting the information of millions of Facebook users.
With that information they influenced the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the UK (in which the UK population voted to leave the EU) and the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US.
In order to do this they simply targeted cohorts of people (that their data analysis determined could be influenced) with propaganda, misinformation and scare mongering.
They sold this as a service and have influenced a significant amount of social upheaval all around the world.
So the next time you give your personal information away online for free think about the creep at the bookstore that was following you around so that he could give good recommendations.
Sure you got a great book out of it... But are you ok with him following you around and watching everything you do?