It was so creepy, the moment I realized how well Big Data knew me. I was sitting in the newsroom, some ordinary afternoon. Idly, I clicked over to Facebook, where an advertisement caught my eye.
There, on my screen, was an image of the exact pair of hot pink Tory Burch sandals—the shoes I was wearing at that very moment. On my feet and on my screen: the same color, the same style, identical twins in patent leather. I had bought them in-person, on sale, and had never looked at them anywhere online or even visited the designer's website. But somehow, Facebook determined, these were the sandals for me. And they were right.
It was a silly thing. So Facebook knows what kinds of shoes I like. So what? But it weirded me out. How did they know? And more importantly: What else did they know?
In the United States, there’s not much we can do to find out which aspects of our personal lives are being bought and sold by data brokers. That’s not the case in much of the rest of the world, where there are vast data protections, entire agencies devoted to data privacy, and serious enforcement efforts.
"Generally, if information is publicly available in the United States, its use is not restricted," said Jim Halpert, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based firm DLA Piper who specializes in global data regulations. "The way that a defender of the U.S. system would respond is to say people don’t really care if they get more specific advertising that they might be interested in... But it goes to discrimination in a certain way rather than to the information collection itself being a harm. At some point you can collect so much information about an individual that it becomes intrusive."