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The data we don’t know needs protecting
It's not just period tracking apps we need to consider.
Consider this scenario— it’s July 8th. Your period starts in the next few days. You know this because you track your menstrual cycle. But you’re smart. You’ve read all the articles about how period tracking apps aren’t safe because that data could be sold to the US government. So, you use an old-fashioned wall calendar and highlighter. You go through your regular monthly routine to prepare. Perhaps you purchase some tampons and bloating medication from your local pharmacy. It’s your typical pattern of behavior for this time of the month.
Unbeknownst to you, however, are other, more hidden behavior patterns you display just before you get your period. For example, your posts on Facebook have an increased word count, and you tend to use the heart react more often. Of course, you don’t know this because who would track that information? But since the pattern is so distinct and dependable, it could be used to track your menstrual cycle just as reliably as your wall calendar, especially when that data is cross-referenced with the tampons you just bought from a pharmacy that sells their data to Facebook.
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Facebook has known for a decade that changes in our mood and health affect how we interact on its platform. They’ve used that discovery to help advertisers manipulate our moods, and predict private events in our lives. And we all know that Facebook leaves a spare key under its digital mat for the US government, as does every American-controlled social media company.
Because we’ve grown so dependent on services provided by Google, Facebook etc., those companies know things about us that we do not know about ourselves. Facebook can detect early signs of depression through your posting history and serve you therapy app ads. Hell, even Target can predict when you’re pregnant and send you coupons in the mail.
And it doesn’t stop there. People are more susceptible to disinformation when they’re grieving a loved one. Cambridge Analytica knew this and used a psychological model to detect such users. Modern data collecting isn’t just about understanding the target demographic, it’s about changing behavior. Tech companies have gotten scary good at this practice.
The United States has the worst protections around our digital data and absolutely zero laws protecting our behavioral patterns. Big tech companies lobby congress to keep the data spigot flowing, yes. But it’s also because we as Americans don’t understand the type of data being used against us. Congress doesn’t know how to attach a Word doc to an email, let alone legislate protections for our digital privacy.
What can we do?
I’m struggling with this section. I don’t want to show you the monster under the bed then tell you to sleep tight. But I also know that people aren’t realistically going to delete their Facebook accounts, stop using Google services, and become a recluse in the mountains of Montana. Actually, now that I think about it, that sounds like a wonderful idea. Who’s in?
We should, as Americans, explore these three options to better protect ourselves:
One: Demand from our elected representatives better protections for our internet data and more regulations over how that data can be used against us. Write your congress person.
Two: learn about the Tor browser, and how to use it. Tor, or Onion browser, offers something approaching anonymity when compared to Google services like Chrome.
Three: explore internet services that aren’t American-owned. I’ll explain more about this strategy in my next post because no matter what, we will always trade our data for the use of free services.
For now, ask your self this— who would you rather know whether you missed your period? A government thousands of miles away with no ability to regulate you? Or the government that just took your rights away?