A barista gets burned at work, buys first-aid cream at Target, and later that day sees a Facebook ad for the same product. In another Target, someone shouts down the aisle to a companion to pick up some Red Bull; on the ride home, Instagram serves a sponsored post for the beverage. A home baker wishes aloud for a KitchenAid mixer, and moments after there’s an ad for one on his phone. Two friends are talking about recent trips to Japan, and soon after one gets hawked cheap flights there. A woman has a bottle of perfume confiscated at airport security, and upon arrival sees a Facebook ad for local perfume stores. These are just some of the many discomforting coincidences that make today’s consumers feel surveilled and violated. The causes are sometimes innocuous, and sometimes duplicitous. As more of them come to light, some will be cause for regulatory or legal remedy.
But none of this is new, nor is it unique to big tech. Online services are only accelerating the reach and impact of data-intelligence practices that stretch back decades. They have collected your personal data, with and without your permission, from employers, public records, purchases, banking activity, educational history, and hundreds more sources. They have connected it, recombined it, bought it, and sold it. Processed foods look wholesome compared to your processed data, scattered to the winds of a thousand databases. Everything you have done has been recorded, munged, and spat back at you to benefit sellers, advertisers, and the brokers who service them. It has been for a long time, and it’s not going to stop. The age of privacy nihilism is here, and it’s time to face the dark hollow of its pervasive void.