Why Does Data Tracking Bother Us?

This post was originally published in design mind on April 11, 2011. It was republished by psfk.

Whenever the topic of personal data tracking comes up, there seem to be two distinct sides in the debate: the “outraged” camp and the “who cares?” camp. A few months ago, Michael Arrington made a pretty convincing case for the “who cares?” side:

If you do stuff online, people are tracking it and putting it into a database and trying to sell you stuff based on that. There’s not much you can do about it except not be online. And it’s not all that bad, really, to get ads for diapers when you’re having a baby, or ads for cars when you are looking to buy a car. Life will go on.

I tend to argue both sides. I have some sympathies with the “who cares?” camp, but most of my thinking has tended towards the “outraged” camp. I’ve asserted that surreptitiously tracking people is a shady business practice. I’ve also argued that without a pricing mechanism, users stand to lose. But setting aside the intellectual arguments, the question I keep asking myself is, “Why am I so creeped out by this stuff?”

Often in the design world, we gather insight by observing others. Other times, insights can come from observing yourself in a shifted context (or to use the fancy term for it: reframing). A few days ago, I had an experience that helped me understand why behavioral tracking leaves me feeling uneasy. It happened not in the online world, but rather in another part of the economy where prices don’t play a strong role for the end user: healthcare.

For the last few weeks, I’d been suffering from a persistent cough. My doctor checked me out and recommended a chest x-ray in order to diagnose the problem. Remembering that I had recently switched to a health savings account insurance plan where I pay for certain expenses directly, I explained to him, “I actually have to keep an eye on how much these things cost. Do you know what this x-ray will cost me?”

He looked up from my chart with wide eyes, a little stunned, “I have no idea.”

I ended up going along with my doctor’s recommendation, despite not knowing the price. But I didn’t feel good about it; I had no idea what it would end up costing me. (In fact, I still don’t know.) Of course, the idea behind health savings accounts is that they empower patients by giving them choice and control over their medical care. But sitting in the doctor’s office trying to weigh the costs and benefits of this x-ray, I realized that I had neither choice nor control. I had to go along with his advice.

Perhaps the thing that bothers us about being tracked online is the lack of choice and control. Even Arrington concedes this point: “There’s not much you can do about it except not be online.” But even if the consequences of being tracked aren’t so dire today (“ads for diapers when you’re having a baby” in his example), you can’t blame users for feeling uneasy. Especially in the US, where freedom and autonomy are so cherished, we’ve had some bad experiences lately with hidden costs.

Healthcare costs are an obvious example. Another is the recent global financial crisis, which showed us that there was a hidden cost to years of cheap money. The free ride doesn’t last forever, we’ve learned. What if the Internet is the next place where the other shoe drops? What will the bursting of that bubble feel like?

There’s a passage in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom that brings to mind this very sense of foreboding:

He was beginning to see, as he hadn’t in St. Paul, that things’ prices weren’t always evident at first glance: that the really big ballooning of the interest charges on his high-school pleasures might still lie ahead of him.

We have an instinctive aversion to debt and a suspicion of free lunch, made worse by recent experience. And while our “Internet debt,” like the interest charges described by Franzen above, may be more figurative than financial, we can’t be blamed for feeling a little uneasy about the future. Perhaps we’d all feel a little less queasy if providers offered us a little more choice and control over how we settle up?

I’m guessing even the “who cares?” camp could agree with that.

photo by flickr user tom.hensel

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