You Are Being Watched

It is an instinct to know when you are being watched and especially when you are being tracked. When you cannot know with much certainty, you take your best guess. When you believe you are being tracked, you act differently. You act with a different state of mind than when you think you are not being observed. This sense of being watched and tracked would have been rational and sensible for Internet users ten years ago when revelations of the extent of Google data collection became evident and the vast spy apparatus of the NSA became public knowledge, but we carried on using the Internet as if our actions were not going on a permanent record. Data collection on Internet activities has increased at least tenfold since then, and now the sense of being observed is starting to seep into the online actions of everyone online.

The most famous data on the way people behave differently when they are being watched comes from TV viewing statistics. It is said that ratings agencies disregard the first three months of viewing data from a volunteer reporting household. Viewing selections are different in this initial period than they are later on after TV viewers get used to the idea of their TV selections being recorded, so different that statisticians treat this initial data as not being representative of anyone’s real habits.

We know this effect never entirely goes away, so that even after a reporting household knows their viewing choices are no longer being recorded by a ratings agency, they may retain a slightly self-conscious approach to channel selection for the rest of their viewing lives.

This self-conscious approach makes more sense online where every move you make is recorded in one way or another. I developed an internal censor very quickly after I got online, worrying that anything I wrote could potentially be repeated out of context by someone along the line. This happened often enough that I concluded that my worries were well founded. I was, in short, behaving like a public figure online. Now everyone seems to be taking on this approach to some extent, even if they don’t realize they are doing it.

I wonder if the various email and social media controversies of the last two years have sunk in. Hundreds of workers have been suspended or fired and hundreds of businesses have faced reprisals or boycotts because of online remarks that were ill-considered or that meant something different when they reached the broader world. Work email messages that their senders and recipients assumed would be forgotten an hour later were scrutinized by regulators, prosecutors, even Congressional committees. When messages potentially have this much reach, it gives every writer a reason to be a litte more reticent.

Of course, it’s not just what you write online or the words you search for. Every click, every mouseover, even every advertising video that you may or may not be paying attention to is recorded. At ordinary commercial sites, these actions are matched, to the best guess of an automated system, to the identify of the person doing them.

Some people are so leery of this attention that they have been driven offline, or at least off Facebook. Many people have taken to technology to block some embedded advertising and to protect their privacy in other ways. But most of us are only being nudged ever so slightly to appear reputable and conventional in our online behavior. The changes are so small we may not notice them. Yet they are not small changes in a commercial sense. The same systems that have been tracking us all along now record that we have cut back as much as 25 percent in some online activities. You can change that much while not noticing the change yourself. It is part of the world we live in now that a swarm of businesses know things about our habits that we ourselves are not quite aware of.

The famous example of this some years ago was when Facebook started to show one user baby advertisements. The user did not know she was pregnant. No one knew, but Facebook had correctly guessed that she was, based on a changes in her social media mood. The science behind this is something anyone can look up online — but first, you might ask yourself, what does that say about me, that I am looking up the behavioral signs of the early weeks of pregnancy? You might ask that question because we all have this sense now that we are being watched.

Eventually we need to make better use of this technology. It can help us learn about ourselves, who we are and how we think. That will be an improvement on the current situation, in which it is only spies and merchants who are learning these things about all of us.

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