As they seem to see it, since getting engaged I’ve become an impressionable ATM from which their advertisers expect to withdraw some $30,000 -- the average price of an American wedding, minus honeymoon, according to the wedding industry. The marital industrial complex has transformed my Internet into a Bridal Expo, with ads for my “dream registry” over here, pitches for “Wedding Paper Divas” all up in my News Feed and offers for “bridal fitness training” hovering above my emails. TheKnot.com checks in more often than my parents. Macy’s, which I never even told about my marriage, tracked me down to my apartment to offer discounts on bridesmaid gear.
Call me rain on a pastel-colored parade, but I still consider marriage more of a major life event than an excuse for a shopping spree. So it felt intrusive to have a personal affair exploited by companies I’d never heard of (and yet mysteriously knew all about my plans). Inspired by Princeton University professor Janet Vertesi’s attempts to hide her pregnancy from the big data overlords, I embarked on my own experiment to see if I could make the Internet forget something I’d already shared: my engagement.
A glimpse at the wedding ads in my Facebook News Feed.
I had a few rules. I didn’t want to opt out of targeted ads altogether, which would have meant more spammy offers for quick credit checks. And I didn’t just want to eliminate the wedding ads, which, although feasible, doesn’t erase the underlying information. I wanted selective Internet amnesia, which EU courts this week ruled its citizens have a right to.
I defined success as deleting any data that could tie me back to someone interested in weddings.
I not only failed miserably, but the Internet -- and its shady network of behind-the-scenes stalkers -- forced me to become a fraud. Obfuscation, I learned, is now the closest thing that passes for privacy.
Rewind to the days before I became a online-dating, singles-trolling con. I started the experiment by identifying three key camps that knew about my nuptials. There was Facebook, which I told months ago in part by switching my profile to “engaged.” (I never “liked” any wedding-related pages or installed marriage-y apps.) Google knew from my emails and browsing activity. There were also the wedding services I’d signed up for -- David’s Bridal, Bloomingdale’s, TheKnot.com -- along with an untold number of anonymous “trusted” “partners” who’d been given my data.
So how to undo the deed? I called privacy experts who told me to clear my browser’s cookies (to force Google to forget I’d hung out on wedding sites); change my Facebook status back to "single"; and delete wedding-related accounts opened with my primary email address (which made it easy for data brokers to pin me as a bride). To be sure I wouldn't leak more evidence, I also installed a browser extension that could mask the IP address of my searches; downloaded another tool to stop companies from tracking my whereabouts online; and swore off sharing my phone number, email or zip code when paying at stores.
Sarah Downey, one of the experts I consulted, warned me that data brokers use the details we share at the cash register to organize and correlate the data sets they can access -- which, in practical terms, means a company like Facebook could link the online me to the offline me who registered at Crate and Barrel.
Ads from the top of my Gmail account.
The tricky thing about hiding a wedding is that unless things are going seriously wrong, it’s not easy asking your fiancé if you can be single again.
“Just want you to know I’m breaking up with you on Facebook,” I chatted my future spouse one afternoon at work. I also requested his Facebook password and typed six words I’d never planned on saying to my significant other of six years: “I need you to be single too.”
Only Facebook knew better. Even with my status back to “single,” I saw just as many honeymoon ads as before. (“Maybe they’re trying to guilt trip you,” suggested my fiancé, who, now that I think about it, might have been doing the same.) I asked a Facebook spokesman whether the social network’s servers could just forget the whole “betrothed” episode. Short answer, no -- only if I deleted my account. Long answer, neither would Facebook’s advertisers. Brands, I learned, can target people who’ve switched their profile to “engaged” as much as a year after the update -- and even after the betrothed changes their status back to “separated” or "single.”
The more I tried to claw back my data, the more places I found it had traveled. TheKnot would scrub me from its servers if I deleted my account, but an untold number of “wedding-related product and service providers” -- presumably the caterers, travel agents and makeup artists who’d been emailing me -- already knew about the “I do.” TheKnot.com would not provide a list of companies that had received my data.
“Many of our brides find value in third-party companies approaching them with additional wedding-related information and services,” said a TheKnot.com spokeswoman, who asked, un-ironically, that I not share her name.
I had a hunch that the incriminating marriage evidence had traveled to the coffers of data brokers like Epsilon and DataLogix, which use those particulars to help brands zero in on specific groups of shoppers online (brides, expecting mothers, potentially even rape victims). But where to start? Facebook alone has partnered with nearly 50 ad networks and data brokers that Zuckerberg uses to suck in more information about Facebook's members -- and help brands find us. Though grabby with our info, I found the data brokers I looked into -- Acxiom, Epsilon, RapLeaf -- were stingy about sharing the contents of my personal file. Even if they would erase my info (doubtful), I couldn’t get answers when it came to what they knew about me.
In case you’re wondering what sort of psychopath tries to hide her wedding, let me be clear: My frustration is not that people know I’m getting married. What drives me nuts is that I can’t control who knows. "Personal information" no longer refers to the intimate details we share at our discretion; it's come to mean any information about a person. And everyone gets access to it.
Helen Nissenbaum, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, sympathized with my complaint when I called her to discuss how I could dis-engage online.
“The problem with the way we think about privacy at the moment is it’s all or nothing,” she told me. “We either release the information or we don’t. And once we release it, well, tough luck.”
Right about the time I was ready to admit defeat, Nissenbaum and I came up with a plan: If you can’t delete, deceive.
While other brides four months away from “I do” would be selecting flower arrangements, I threw myself into joining as many online dating sites as I could find. From LDSSingles (“seek and ye shall find”) to Match.com, I was, from the Internet’s point of view, single and very ready to mingle.
I tried, again, to confuse Facebook by connecting my profile to dating apps like Tinder, Momo, Hinge, Zoosk, IvyConnect, HowAboutWe and Sway. I sent myself a very single-sounding email with words like “online dating,” “breakup,” “single” and “find love” spelled out for the benefit of Gmail’s prying eyes. I tracked down a list of the top online dating-related search terms and -- with Google’s tracking tools back on and fully enabled -- queried the search engine for the top sixteen phrases (I threw in things like “OKCupid” and “eHarmony” for good measure).
In less than 50 minutes, I’d convinced Google to add “Dating and Personals” to my list of interests, which is compiled based on the sites I visit and determines what ads I'll see. (You can see what Google thinks it knows about you here.)
Just as quickly, the telepathic ads above Gmail switched from “Discover Romance in Maui” to “Is He A Cheater?” as Google pushed background checks in place of sundrenched honeymoons.
I have no clue what the data brokers now think about me. Then again, I never did. I can only hope that as you read this, a puzzled piece of software is frantically updating a “Bianca Bosker” entry as it traces my email to the sketchy singles sites I gave. Sure, that means I'm stuck deleting dozens of emails with crude come-ons from Romeos like “Ehhhh” and “BKFiness.” But I take some comfort in thinking that if I haven’t purged my data, at least the people who peddle it are very, very confused. I've gone from definitely being a bride to possibly being engaged, single and mentally unsound.
And Facebook? In what may be a testament to the social network’s unshakeable ability to know us and sell us, Facebook still hasn’t fallen for anything.
I hadn’t thought it possible, but I’m actually seeing more wedding ads from more wedding retailers than when I started Operation Disengage. A new one showed up yesterday. It was David’s Bridal, with an offer for invitations.