“Every piece of information is worth something to somebody. And in the hands of the wrong person, that could be deadly.” – Raymond Reddington (The Blacklist, S2E01).
As a freelance writer, I’ve written my fair share of topics I would ordinarily have no interest in whatsoever, from different types of tree diseases to the benefits of microservice architecture. I still have to consult Google once in a while to confirm the things I already know, so of course, there’s a lot more research for topics that are entirely out of my scope. When the ads powered by Google start to reflect whatever I’ve been working on, I know I’ve spent a decent amount of time on a particular niche. At times, I get ads for goods and services I have no interest in purchasing. Of course, for people who don’t have to clutter their search history with irrelevant queries, their ads make more sense most of the time. In a nutshell, Google takes information from your searches like ‘restaurants in Ikeja,’ ‘how important is sunscreen,’ and sells your ad slots to businesses interested in people making those queries. Sometimes it can be advantageous, but occasionally it gets eerie.
When Nigeria announced there would be a lockdown in March, I knew I had to travel home to Abuja if I didn’t want to be stuck in Lagos indefinitely. At the time, I hadn’t learned the incognito trick to search for flight prices, so I used my standard query to book a ticket. In less than five minutes, I got a suggestion from Maps to check out “Ten places to visit while you’re in Abuja.” I thought, seriously? You guys aren’t even sure I booked a ticket, or are you? I know a stranger example that happened to one of my friends. She recently got a henna design on her hands for the first time and liked it, so she took a few pictures with her phone. Now interested in more laali designs, this friend decided to check Pinterest for more ideas. But when she opened the app, guess what Pinterest suggested first? You guessed it, more henna designs. In both instances, Google was only trying to help and give us options before we could even ask. Yet, as smart as the algorithm is in predicting what we want, it’s still a little bothersome because of the information it takes to make those suggestions. You can’t give me touring ideas if you don’t know where I am, and you can’t offer me ideas for things I haven’t searched unless you’re watching.
Granted, most of us aren’t criminals, and we don’t necessarily believe these algorithms have nefarious plans for us. But that sense of always being watched by devices we can’t bear to part with, even when we go to the bathroom, is unnerving.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to draw the line on where the internet knows too much. We want our gadgets to be smarter, but we don’t want them to know too much. We want to find what we’re looking for, but we don’t want to feel like businesses are specifically targeting us. We crave being understood without the feeling of being put under a microscope.
But as time goes on, we relieve it’s virtually impossible to get the exact dish we want without telling the chef the ingredients to add. Many of us are willing to sacrifice privacy for things we deem more pressing. Take the continuous glucose monitoring device diabetics to wear, for example. The patient inserts a sensor into their skin that monitors their blood sugar and sends wireless signals to the CGM device. The CGM is connected to an insulin pump, which releases the hormone as needed into the patient’s bloodstream. So it can regulate their blood sugar automatically. Some people might say, well, that’s different. But the iPhone is now working on an artificial pancreas, which users can control using their devices. While that makes things easier for the diabetic user, it’s another piece of information about you on the internet that’s up for grabs.
The truth is we can’t eat our cake and have it. As our demands for customized diets, exercise plans, financial advice, and more increases, we call the limit on the information we give our apps and site and will continue to be shifting lines in the sand.