Going, Going, Gone: Cyber Deal on My Data!

by Anna Villegas
Anna Villegas

As a senior citizen, I’m prone to heart-stopping moments of fright occasioned by the pop-up messages from my anti-virus program, cast in inflammatory colors and couched in the language of veiled threat. Most of these admonitions against user disobedience are dispatched by an easy click, my computer is no worse for the wear, and my heartbeat resumes its normal rhythm.

Yesterday, though, in the midst of a quick search for a recipe promising to make quinoa palatable (no doubt, clickbait), the initial message was this:

Your browsing history may be exposed!

Decades ago, such a warning would have necessitated self-defense: I would have unplugged my computer until the bad guys left the building. Eavesdropping on me? No way.

Then another pressing missive from the anti-virus program winked at me, presenting an elevated threat:

Your internet provider may be selling your browsing info!

What? Hold on a minute. My browsing information has market value?

I’m feeling a yard sale premonition coming on.

I understand marketers (the ostensible buyers for my data) believe in the principle that consumers will buy more of what they’ve already bought. After a recent order of kitchen sponges, for example, the sidebar of my screen populated with a number of suggestions based on the fact that  “other customers have looked at these related items.”

The related items were not all sponges, either. (The SpongeBob SquarePants adult onesie caught my eye because it’s a bright and welcome relief from the dull sweat pant outfits that have become my retirement couture.  Add a dangly pair of earrings, and I’m good to go.)

Knowing what complete strangers spend their money on could grant someone a kind of creepy power, if the know-it-all is so inclined.

I understand the compulsion to buy as our economic betters have bought, as famous economist and the George Clooney of the early 20th century, Thorstein Veblen, taught us. (Now you’re googling Veblen, right? Who knows what the nosey parkers will do with that personal info!). Facebook and Instagram promote items others (who clearly know better than we do) have bought so we will hang our heads in shame, wield the already red-hot credit cards, and buy the new and improved sponges (and maybe the onesie?) to establish our dominance.

Somebody, a political hack perhaps, could build a dubious profile of me based on the websites I visit, the purchases I make, and the blogs I read. Here’s a freebie for the cyber spies: stick to the how-to blogs, the ones promising an outcome, like how you can maintain your social visibility beyond the age of sixty or why it’s simply not okay to allow your smokey eye make-up to travel.

But how does the trail of my web meanderings reveal intent?  That I occasionally click on the “These celebs have aged badly” sidebars doesn’t necessarily mean I harbor schadenfreude toward Steven Tyler or Kathleen Turner. My spouse, a tenacious and constant consumer of online political polling, has somehow made President Trump’s mailing list; he often receives invitations to dine with the POTUS. (My husband figures that, since he is not a bona fide donator to the president’s causes, but merely a misidentified toady, at most he qualifies for a Burger King meal.)

I get that an e-mail address is a kind of present, a modest one in my case, to an advertiser or a political messenger. I don’t believe, however, that our minds are as vulnerable to suggestion as the cyber collectors do. Or that my online scrolling amounts to much more than the my having lots of free time in retirement. But if anybody’s going to profit off my browsing history, it’s going to be me.

Therefore, in the spirit of the holiday shopping season, have I got some deals for you. Move fast—these prices won’t last!

I adore Randy Rainbow. Sometimes, on a dark day steeped in nostalgia for public manners, I will loop “Desperate Cheeto” and marvel at Randy’s perfect pitch and porcelain skin. Randy’s rosy cheeks might inspire me to survey the Retinol lotions on sale at my online Walgreen’s. You want to know this?  I’d say it’s worth $25.

I have a Steller’s jay who has figured out how to fly through the little chicken-sized door into my coop in order to feast on the fresh eggs my girls leave. I had to conduct deep online research to learn how to deter the jay. I could tell you what I discovered, an ornate feint involving injection of liquid calcium into a decoy egg with a hypodermic needle…. Or I could sell you my browsing data for a negotiated price.

Having recently endured a second colonoscopy, I find those Cologuard commercials enticing. Can you really substitute an at-home test for the full-blown hospital experience?  The answer is in my browsing cache, available at a fire sale price of $35.

Like most women, I am a thrifty shopper. Sometimes I’ll return to window shop a coveted item like those leather Teva Foxy boots again and again. And sometimes—miracle of miracles—certain web stores will tell me the price has dropped into bargain basement range. I welcome this kind of anonymous oversight because hey, a deal’s a deal. You probably already know this trick, so let’s price it loss leader low, say $2.50.

Maybe my online history, an aggregate of very small moments, most of which I have difficulty remembering, could yield a shadowy woman’s profile, but it isn’t going to be mine. Honestly, the sum total of my internet ramblings shapes neither a political party loyalist nor a predictable consumer. Yes: I admit I am a Randy groupie, but so far I’ve resisted the SpongeBob onesie.

One thing is clear. A faithless huckster, that’s what I am.

Get your bids in now.

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