Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Trackers

A couple of weeks ago I went to the local shopping centre looking for a thermometer. After entering one store upon leaving without buying anything a tracker was assigned to me. I didn’t think much of it at first, but he followed me dutifully around the shopping centre, took careful note of how I walked. Whenever I visited a store he made a note in his little black book (he kept calling it my profile, and he didn’t want to show me what was in it so I assume it was actually his, rather than mine). Each of those stores of course assigned trackers to me as well and soon enough I was followed by my own personal veritable posse of non-descript guys with little black books making notes.

After doing my shopping I went home. To my surprise they expected to come into the house with me and stay there, which I objected against. That didn’t stop them, instead of walking in with me through the front door they forced the back door and installed themselves at my table. One of them had found my mobile phone and was going through my list of contacts, adding the names and the telephone numbers of the people that I knew to a thing they called a ‘social graph’. It mattered a lot to them, apparently, and even though I took the phone away from him and made him wipe the copy that he’d made I realized that if they did the same to my friends (who likely would not take as forceful a stance against the trackers as I did) they’d already have most of that information anyway and there was nothing I could do about it. Every visitor to my house was asked a whole pile of personal questions, and if they didn’t answer their photographs would be used to complete the gaps in their profiles and mine. Overnight they’d been up to something because the next morning my newspaper had been cut up, with all kinds of blank windows between the articles. They assured me that all of this was entirely legal, and that may be so but it left me with a weird feeling that these anonymous entities would know just about more about me than my own mother does.

Upset about this I decided to read my newspaper in the park, where I expected at least a little bit more privacy. I probably should have known better. The trackers of course followed me to the park and set up an impromptu auction of the space created by the holes in my paper. Every time I would open a page the space on that page would come up for auction, and the tracker that won the auction would quickly glue an advertisement that he’d brought with him over the gap in the page. Mysteriously quite a few of the ads were for thermometers, even though I no longer had a need for one (having found one in the drawer in the bathroom that same evening). The guy the newspaper hired to do the auctions thought this was a-ok, and encouraged the trackers to bid ever higher based on all the stuff that he told them about me. The information they used included all the stuff in ‘my’ profile (some of which came as a surprise to me, for instance, he knew roughly what I earned, knew the fact that I had kids and a whole raft of other details that I did not consider to be any of his business and even today I have no idea how he got that information) as well as our current location on that park bench.

Some of the more enterprising trackers took down the stuff the newspaper guy told them about me in their own little black books and soon were auctioning that information off to other trackers and in fact to anybody that was willing to part with some money. It became quite a crowd (a mini wall-street, actually) around my chosen parkbench and the atmosphere turned bad to the point where I did not feel as if the park had anything to offer any longer.

I figured maybe I’d go for some lunch to a nearby restaurant. The trackers had long since figured out my mobile phone number, and combined with a little embedded code in a game that I’d once installed (and played twice, but it wasn’t a very good game) kept a continuous read-out of my phone and all its sensors, and phoned home to the mother ship whenever it could. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when just as I was passing by the door of one particular restaurant chain an ad popped up overlaying my mobile screen indicating that that restaurant had my favorite dish on sale that day. (How did they figure out my favorite dish anyway, was that because I had searched for a recipe a few weeks ago?).

I resisted the temptation and decided to go anywhere but there. (Even if that meant the trackers could still influence me at least they’d have to add an inversion to all their little plans).

Finally after a couple of weeks of this I decided I’d had enough. The final straw was when a tracker popped up in my bed, between me and my wife when I was looking for the shortest route to my meeting the next morning, really, that did it. The advertising industry did not have the right to become involved in my private life to this degree, to track my every move and to keep detailed information of my daily whereabouts and interactions in the real world, and the last place I expected them to track me to was the privacy of my bedroom.

I hired a couple of ‘tough guys’, bouncers, really. Their assignments were simple: keep these advertising types out of my life, hurt them if you have to, I’ve really had enough of it. Another side benefit of this was that the burglars and other shady types that used the information gathered by the trackers to target me for an entirely different kind of operation were also shut out.

After the first couple of run-ins between ‘bouncers’ and ‘trackers’ the trackers got the message and mostly left me alone. Some still tried but for the most part it seems I was at least a little bit more safe from prying eyes. Even more powerful methods of getting rid of trackers exist and there are many variations to choose from with different functionality, for some, apparently even bouncers were not enough to regain some of their much deserved privacy. Some of the bouncers were trying to be a little bit too clever for my taste, they actually simply took the place of the trackers they blocked. Serves me right for hiring tough guys I gather, so I’ve been more careful since then and check out carefully which party gets to place themselves between me and the trackers. Even with the tough guys in tow there were still ways in which I could be tracked. But at least that seemed to - for now - be beyond the pale for most respectable businesses employing trackers.

Some venues did not allow me to enter with my bouncers in tow, those I stopped visiting, it’s not that I minded their advertising to me, but I did mind being followed all over and if they wouldn’t change their ways then I would have to change mine.

All of this is really too bad, since some of the stores depended to a certain extent on my patronage, but I guess there are not enough people that are concerned about privacy to make a difference. Or are there?

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