My Phone Knows More About Me Than You Do

It seems I made one trip too many to Drifters Hamburgers restaurant.

One afternoon, I ate at Drifter’s Hamburgers, a restaurant that I often visit. The next day I received a notification on my phone suggesting another burger restaurant (The Green Line Grill and Bingo Burger) for me to visit based on my love for hamburgers. Below is the actual notification on my phone:

Judging from the displayed information of the picture, three significant steps are used to determine how strangers can sense I like hamburgers: first (A), they have collected data. Then (B), they had to analyze the data. (No use in collecting data if you are not going to analyze it) and third (C), they have to perform an action based on analytics.

The data collected in this case comes directly from the GPS system and the associated software that collects GPS data. I have an application titled “Map My Hike.” A hiking and fitness app that tracks distance, elevation, speed, calories, etc., as you hike along your trails. It is a great application. When I installed this great app, the manufacturer warned that it needs the GPS system to work, and therefore, data from the GPS system will be collected. This included the tracking of my own global positioning. I knew, just as the general public knows that this data is used to try to sell you things it thinks you will buy. This, of course, relies heavily on the type of places you visit. I knew this, but I did not care. After all, I was not committing a crime, nor do I plan to commit any crime. I was not doing anything immoral — at least nothing that could be tracked by GPS, and I was not hanging out with any known wrong places, where deviant people hang out, like the Republican Headquarters Building. I did not mind if they tracked my positions. So what! And anyway, every once-in-a-while, they actually do advertise something that I am genuinely interested in checking-out.

I am going to state the obvious — they did not figure out that hamburgers were my thing from just one visit to Drifter’s Hamburgers. This decision was made after a long period of tracking, and the analyzation of my positions, with particular attention on grid coordinates occupied by commercial entities. To figure out that I like hamburgers from my visits to certain retardants does not take a computer with fancy analytics. And sometimes, the data would lead to false conclusions. I have eaten hamburgers in Mexican Restaurants, and I have eaten chicken in hamburger restaurants. For a small sampling, mistakes can be made. However, for very large samplings, the data results could be closer to reality. In my case, there could be years of data that they based it on. I have been to several burger joints and never received a message like this before. Maybe I hit some milestone embedded in some algorithmic soup a computer scientist dreamed up. I did not graduate from Princeton, but I understand that somewhere out there, there are dozens, maybe hundreds or thousands of data points assigned to my digital being. There is a digital profile of all of us out there, and if we ever see it, even the most jaded will be shocked, or at least quite put-off by it. Sometimes those data points may not be in one coherent profile that is attached to you as an individual. However, all of the data needed to create a detailed and comprehensive profile on you are out there just waiting to be aggregated and analyzed by sophisticated algorithms that can tell you more about yourself then a Big Five Personality Test.

The scary part is that hamburgers are my favorite food. I talk about hamburgers at home with my family, at work with my fellow burger lovers, and sometimes uninvited, I join the discussion of burgers with strangers. Especially when there is the talk of the best burger in the city, so, this was the right decision they made, and truthfully, I will try the restaurant they suggested to me. So what is the issue?

The issue for me comes in a question to the data gods: Who else sees and analyses this data? I sure hope it is not the health insurance companies. Health insurance based on surreptitiously collected data may not be far away. When I say surreptitiously, I do not mean that it is collected without our knowledge, I mean that it is used by entities we are not freely able to know of or about. This could be a problem. We do not legally own data collected from us. Suppose there are secretive agencies that assign health scores to private citizens, based on the citizens’ social habits, purchasing history, health habits. Those agencies could sell these data scores to insurance and health agencies, which in turn can adjust their cost to ensure their profitability better. Many science fiction writers have spun this idea into a dystopian cliché that we are all very familiar with.

However, just as every joke contains some very unfunny elements of truth, every science fiction cliché contains somber elements of inevitability. The inner Luddite in me wants to pick and choose which aspects of technology I would like to see move on, based on its potential to do good against harm. But the pragmatist in me knows that technology is an all or nothing proposition. Whether technology is purposely designed to do good or evil, both of these twins will contain parts of the other by its nature. Just as Neil Postman stated, “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing, not either-or, but this and that.” I digress! Please forgive my rant, but I know you feel as I do, reader.

Looking again at that screenshot, I smirk a little at the part that states, “You seem interested in hamburgers.” That is smart. If you take away the “seem” and replace it with an “are”, it would seem pretentious or even offensive to a consumer. “The nerve of these motherfuckers telling me what I like!” The word “seem” lets them off the hook by making it a less than a 100% possibility that I like hamburgers. I cannot say they are wrong, because they can come back and say they did not make a definitive statement. But still — they have made a definite statement, and as I said a little earlier, it is very accurate.

All of us are prey to the digital world. Not just to the advertisers and companies that want our money, we are also the prey of technology itself. We don’t download applications to teach our phones to keep track of where we are, how we got there, and how long we stayed at a particular place. Our phone just does that on its own. It has unique algorithms that can determine just about anything about you, such as if you move to a new location when you are likely to buy flowers, where you are most likely to spend your vacation, and what type of food you like. Your phone knows more about you than your mother or anyone else for that matter.

So, say what you want, but I am carrying my ass over to the Green Line Grill and Bingo Burger. I hear their hand-crafted Ghost Chile Burger is the shit!



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Thomas Holt Russell

Thomas Holt Russell

Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. My writing is a living organism.