Google Is Watching Me, and I’m Fine With It


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I started making a lot of hiking plans earlier this spring. I'd adopted a dog in January and had been wandering in the woods almost every weekend since. Then a friend of mine emailed me and asked if I'd be interested in section-hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail-specifically the parts that run through Connecticut and Massachusetts. I'd visited a couple of the Connecticut sections last summer, so I was excited to hit some new spots, this time with the dog in tow.

One thing was clear from the short hikes I'd been taking all winter: My sneakers were not going to cut it in the woods. Their bottoms were too smooth, and I'd lost my footing more than once. In the winter, I'd been able to wear my snow boots, but come July those were not going to work either. So I hit the internet and started looking for hiking shoes.

I used Bing to compare "good inexpensive hiking shoes for women" and used Google for my more general searches. Before I knew it, my entire web experience was dominated by two types of ads: the pet supply ads I'd been getting for months and ads for Zappos and outdoor equipment stores. Even when I played Words with Friends through my Facebook app, the ads were mostly for Petco.

I know some people would find this intrusive and even a little creepy. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, "About two-thirds of search engine users disapprove of the collection of information on their searches for the purpose of personalizing their future search results and an equal proportion of all internet users disapprove of being tracked for the purpose of getting targeted ads."

I, however, could not care less if the internet knows I am in the market for new shoes or good deals on pet food. This is not exactly what I'd call privileged information. Anyone who drives through my neighborhood can see that I've got a dog and a couple of nutty cats-they can often be seen wrestling in my front yard. The people in Eastern Mountain Sports will know what I'm looking for when I stop into the store-and if I buy something, they'll probably ask for my Zip code and maybe even my email address.

Despite my distinct lack of concern about search engine tracking, I thought it might be fun to mess with the system and see what happened. I enlisted the help of a friend, and we started sending each other nonsense messages through Gmail. I'd send her one that read, "pickle, fork, antibiotic, holly bush, gardening, jello, organic," and she'd send me one that read, "Jesus, Thai food, pooper-scooper, podiatrist, Mississippi."

We went back and forth like this a couple of times, but Google seemed to be on to us. Even though it had happily served me ads for bridesmaid's dresses when we were emailing about her wedding last fall, it seemed to distrust our nonsense emails-or at least was incapable of matching them to an advertisement. It just kept throwing ads for dog toys and hiking boots at me.

I'm not the only one who doesn't get what all the excitement is about. On her marketing blog, Ameena Falchetto wrote, "Privacy online is a hot topic. I will be honest and say I never really get what the fuss is about." And frankly, even many people who told Pew they disapprove of having their online activity tracked don't care enough to actually change their privacy settings. According to Pew, "When it comes to limiting access to personal information online, 38% of internet users say they are aware of ways they themselves can limit how much information about them is collected by a website. Among this group, the most common strategies include deleting web histories, using the privacy settings of websites and changing their browser settings."

Even Mark Zuckerberg is on my side. Way back in 2010 he declared the "age of privacy" dead. I don't know that I believe it is dead, but I do believe it has changed for the better. What we might have once considered private information-like our grocery list or a need for new shoes-is no longer top-secret. And why should it be? Do you really care who knows what kind of yogurt you like if it means getting a coupon once a month? Now, those embarrassing pictures of you on Facebook, that's a different matter. I'd dig into those privacy settings if I were you.