I tried to keep my unborn child secret from Facebook and Google

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Having a child is a deeply personal experience. The internet aggressively turns it into anything but

The internet hates secrets. More than that, it despises them. And so, in February of last year, my partner and I resolved to try and keep the existence of our unborn child a secret from the online economy’s data-hungry gaze. Our reasons were simple: first, we wanted our child, when it was good and ready, to establish its own online identity; second, we didn’t want to be stalked around the internet by adverts for breast pumps and baby carriers; finally, and most pertinently, we wanted some semblance of control over something that felt deeply personal.

Opting out of tracking and targeting, it turns out, isn’t an option. There is no such thing as a purely transactional transaction. Every purchase I make and every website I visit is recorded, tracked and indelibly tagged to scores of profiles sold by data brokers I’ve never heard of to companies I’ve never heard of in an attempt to persuade me to spend £150 on a Chicco Next 2 Me Bedside Crib. Spoiler: I did.

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When Kids Realize Their Whole Life Is Already Online

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For several months, Cara has been working up the courage to approach her mom about what she saw on Instagram. Not long ago, the 11-year-old—who, like all the other kids in this story, is referred to by a pseudonym—discovered that her mom had been posting photos of her, without prior approval, for much of her life. “I’ve wanted to bring it up. It’s weird seeing myself up there, and sometimes there’s pics I don’t like of myself,” she said.

But it’s not just overzealous mommy bloggers who construct a child’s online identity; plenty of average parents do the same. There’s even a portmanteau for it: sharenting. Almost a quarter of children begin their digital lives when parents upload their prenatal sonogram scans to the internet, according to a study conducted by the internet-security firm AVG. The study also found that 92 percent of toddlers under the age of 2 already have their own unique digital identity.

When Ellen, an 11-year-old, finally decided to Google herself, she didn’t expect to find anything, because she doesn’t yet have her own social-media accounts. She was stunned when she found years of swim scores and sports statistics on the web. A personal story she wrote in third grade was also published on a class website with her name attached. “I didn’t think I would be out there like this on the internet,” she told me.

Ellen said that while she didn’t find anything too sensitive or personal, she was frustrated that all the information about herself had been posted seemingly without her consent.

The Soothing Promise of Our Own Artisanal Internet

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In September, for instance, Nicole Wong, a veteran of Google and Twitter, said it might be time for a “slow food movement for the internet,” reminiscing about the early 2000s, when algorithms focused on showing users useful information rather than whatever keeps people on the platform. Behavioral advertising is to blame for “this crazy environment that we’re in now,” she told Recode.

For consumers, this means forgoing convenience to control your ingredients: Read newsletters instead of News Feeds. Fall back to private group chats. Put the person back in personalization. Revert to reverse chron. Avoid virality. Buy your own server. Start a blog. Embrace anonymity. Own your own domain. Spend time on federated social networks rather than centralized ones. And when a big story breaks, consider saving your appetite for the slow-cooked, room-temp take.

“I don’t know what the Michael Pollan version would be: Eat independent sites, mostly not Facebook?” says Glitch CEO Anil Dash…

He Reported on Facebook. Now He Approaches It With Caution.

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How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Nick Confessore, an investigative reporter, discussed the tech he’s using.

The social media app I really miss is Instagram. I always had a private account, and I accept requests only from real-life friends and family. So it’s an ocean of sanity and genuine relationships compared with Twitter, which is a hell of random angry people. But when I log in — once or twice a week at most, usually on my wife’s phone — I’m now hyper-conscious that every like, thumb click and scroll may go into my permanent Facebook record.

Is deleting Facebook an effective way to protect privacy?

Not in the slightest.

It may interfere with Facebook’s ability to track you as a consumer. But almost every website you visit or app you have on your phone is to some extent tracking where you go and what you do.

My daughter asked me to stop writing about motherhood. Here’s why I can’t do that.

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“What’s all this?” she said. The screen was covered with thumbnail sketches of her as a baby, a toddler and preschooler — each paired with an essay or blog post I’d written on the subject of parenting. “Why are all of these pictures of me on the Internet?” She wanted to know, and she had a right to know.

I read through some of my old pieces, and none of them seemed embarrassing to me, though she might not agree. A few years ago, I wrote about a disappointment in her social life — a girl she counted as her best friend abruptly stopped talking to her. While I wrote about the experience from the perspective of a mother trying to help her daughter through a rough patch without succumbing to anti-girl stereotypes about so-called mean girls, she might not appreciate seeing a painful episode from her past splashed across the Internet.

Period-tracking apps are not for women

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“The design of these tools often doesn’t acknowledge the full range of women’s needs. There are strong assumptions built into their design that can marginalize a lot of women’s sexual health experiences,” Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University, tells me in an email, after explaining that her period tracker couldn’t understand her pregnancy, “a several-hundred-day menstrual cycle.”

Levy coined the term “intimate surveillance” in an expansive paper on the topic in the Iowa Law Review in 2015. At the time, when she described intimate data collection as having passed from the state’s public health authorities to every citizen with a smartphone, she was mostly alone in her level of alarm. This was just after Apple Health launched (sans menstrual tracking), hailed as the future of medical care. But even before that, Levy argued, the “data-fication” of romantic and sexual behaviors was everywhere. There were smart pelvic floor exercisers that could pair with smartphones via Bluetooth. There were sex-tracking apps that quantified performance by counting thrusts and duration and “noise.”

“The act of measurement is not neutral,” Levy wrote. “Every technology of measurement and classification legitimates certain forms of knowledge and experience, while rendering others invisible.” Sex tracking apps and their ilk “simplify highly personal and subjective experiences to commensurable data points.”

Alexa, Should We Trust You?

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The ramifications of this shift are likely to be wide and profound. Human history is a by-product of human inventions. New tools—wheels, plows, PCs—usher in new economic and social orders. They create and destroy civilizations. Voice technologies such as telephones, recording devices, and the radio have had a particularly momentous impact on the course of political history—speech and rhetoric being, of course, the classical means of persuasion. Radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s rallies helped create a dictator; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats edged America toward the war that toppled that dictator.

Perhaps you think that talking to Alexa is just a new way to do the things you already do on a screen: shopping, catching up on the news, trying to figure out whether your dog is sick or just depressed. It’s not that simple. It’s not a matter of switching out the body parts used to accomplish those tasks—replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears. We’re talking about a change in status for the technology itself—an upgrade, as it were. When we converse with our personal assistants, we bring them closer to our own level.