Opinion: A Privacy Revolution Begins with Tainting the Data
Comedian Steve Martin once came up with a novel way to fend off a mugger: "The first thing I do is throw up on my money," he said.
Why not take the same approach to the corporate "muggers" who rob us of our privacy by tracking everything from our search history, shopping patterns, entertainment choices and how we use our cell phones?
Consider: Search giant Google was recently found to have developed a code that bypasses private web-browsing settings on Apple's Safari browser, leading members of Congress to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. The FTC had already taken Google to task for opting users into a social network without their permission and investigated Facebook for making false promises about privacy.
Late last year it was discovered that many top smartphones, including some versions of Apple's top-selling iPhone, contain Carrier IQ software that collects some information about their phone usage.
Most people have no idea the extent of information collected. When Austrian student Max Schrems convinced Facebook last year to turn over everything it had on him, he reportedly got back more than 1,200 pages of data, including his online chats, log-in and log-out times and a history of messages and "likes." Schrems is still fighting to get even more information he believes the social media behemoth has.
But information is only as valuable as it is accurate. What if we turned the tables on data collectors by poisoning the well?
Think about it. Hundreds of thousands of people using Google several times a day to search for things in which they have no genuine interest, like used motorcycle dealers in Kenya or former bat boys of the Chicago Cubs.
How about rotating cell phones with your family or friends, so ad trackers will wonder why you're at the mall at 2 p.m. on Wednesday instead of at your office? You could like statuses on Facebook you really hate, talk about movies you haven't seen and join pages you ordinarily wouldn't give a second glance. Try visiting web sites that have no relevance to your life.
Do you use one of those club cards at a supermarket that swap automatic coupons for your life history of grocery shopping? That data could be sold to your life insurance company. So switch cards with your friends (ideally, those who don't binge on doughnuts and beer). You'll still get the discounts at the register.
This revolution doesn't have to mean giving up legitimate use of the Internet. If you search for movie times for the latest Adam Sandler movie, you could counter that data out by posting on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ about how much terrible you thought it was if you liked it, or how much you loved it if it stank.
For every practical search, you could throw in a few useless ones. It would have to be conceivably useful information, though, not the number of centimeters between Brooklyn and Mumbai, to be convincing.
And why not turn Facebook's loose registration policies against it. Let's face it: of those 800 million accounts, there must be thousands, if not millions of larks. I know a family who has a Facebook account for their dog, their parrot and a slug they found on their doorstep (no kidding). So if you use your real name, fudge the details of your employment, location and education.
While you're at it, post a few positive statuses about the candidate or party you really want to lose. That would be the equivalent of telling a pollster you're voting for the opposite candidate to give that person false confidence, one of the oldest tricks in the book.
It would take a while for this Occupy Privacy revolution to get started and it would require some modified parenting. Keep telling your kids it's wrong to lie, but add "except to Google and Facebook."
When companies begin to make movies that bomb and smartphones that won't sell based on the useless data for which they shelled out big bucks, the bottom will fall out of the data-mining and privacy-robbing business.
Is this unethical? No more so, I think, than ducking into a cab to avoid a stalker, or closing the blinds on a peeping Tom. Or luring people into a massive social network under the guise of "helping you connect and share with the people in your life" while collecting a complete dossier on you.
So I say, resistance is not futile. We've sacrificed enough of our dignity by allowing big companies to peek into the most intimate details of our lives by stealing our data. It's time to do the only dignified thing and throw up all over it.
Adam Dickter is a writer and editor living in New York. Or is he?