By now, the story of Target’s role in informing a Minnesota father of his teenage daughter's pregnancy has become sort of an urban legend about the risks of data-based advertising. If you haven’t heard it – Target sent coupons for baby clothes and cribs to the girl after her prior purchases indicated a potential pregnancy. The outraged father complained to Target after seeing his daughter’s name in the address field, only to later find out that his daughter was actually pregnant. The manager at the Minneapolis Target called the father to apologize, the father in turn apologized to the manager for complaining without checking the facts first, and we can only assume they shared a cigar nine months later.
This is a real story, as outrageous as it sounds, and it’s not even the worst example. Some women have reported receiving coupons and advertisements for baby-related offers after suffering a miscarriage. These horror stories were enough to convince one New York woman to see what it takes to keep retailers out of her pregnancy.
Princeton sociology professor Janet Vertesi used the Tor browser when she had to browse baby-related websites, bought maternity clothes with cash, asked family and friends to refrain from mentioning her pregnancy on social media, and even resorted to code language when discussing the baby and pregnancy with her husband via text message, Forbes reports.
For online shopping, Vertesi created an email account on a personal server set up just to run an Amazon account, and had her purchases shipped to an Amazon Locker, which is essentially a PO box for Amazon orders. Vertesi told Forbes that "Amazon knows that email address has babies," but couldn’t make use of the information without her personal address. To avoid tipping them off through their credit card billing data, Vertesi and her husband bought Amazon gift cards with cash at retail stores and used them to make their purchases online.
Her objective was to avoid receiving unsolicited baby- and pregnancy-related offers from retailers, and her efforts paid off.
"It was really just a personal project, to see if it’s possible to avoid detection. If you’re a pregnant woman, it’s usually impossible to make it through your pregnancy without a single diapers ad. We didn’t get a single baby mailing, which is why I think it worked," Vertesi told Forbes. "You have to start early though before you’re even pregnant: My husband and I bought prenatal vitamins with cash."
The most challenging aspects of the anonymous pregnancy were making purchases and maintaining her Facebook presence without tipping off advertisers. Vertesi was apparently successful in each aspect, even though two congratulatory Facebook messages made their way to her message inbox. She says she deleted the messages and unfriended both of the people who sent them, one of whom happened to be a beloved uncle, Forbes reports.
"I immediately deleted the messages and unfriended them," she said, according to Forbes. "They didn’t understand that private messages on Facebook are as bad as Wall posts. What’s amazing is how the platforms have disappeared into the background. They didn’t think about the platform being part of the interaction. I didn’t want Facebook to know about the pregnancy, and they could do that by data-mining my private messages."
Although her experiment was successful, Vertesi doesn’t recommend it to other women. She says the sneaking around made her feel like a "criminal" and was overall "incredibly inconvenient."
"It isn’t sustainable and I don’t recommend that other people try fleeing Facebook and doing everything with Tor," Vertesi said, according to Forbes. "I just wanted to show how we take for granted the mechanisms of the Internet economy, including constant tracking and monetizing of our data. My project wasn’t about not consuming; I just wanted to resist tracking in the act of consumption, and that was difficult to do."