Jane Bradley: Stop watching me, Big Brother

Technology is turning the everyday into Big Brother. Picture: TSPL

Technology is turning the everyday into Big Brother. Picture: TSPL

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The other night, my husband and I were watching a TV programme on catch up. It was The Tribe, an interesting Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary about the life of a tribal family in Ethiopia.

By 11pm, we were halfway through episode three. However, our eyelids starting to droop, when the millionth ad break of the binge appeared, we decided to call it a night and watch the rest some other time.

Note, SOME other time. Perhaps in a few days; maybe next week; possibly even never (although it was very good).

Two days later, I received an e-mail from Channel 4. “Did something go wrong?” it asked, concernedly. “Here’s your link to resume watching The Tribe.” I could, it told me, click direct from my e-mail and restart watching the documentary from the point we’d stopped, right now. Of course I didn’t. My husband would have never forgiven me if I’d watched it without him.

But while I’m sure Channel 4 was just trying to be helpful (and make sure I spent a bit more time on their site in a bid to generate more adverts, perchance), it freaked me out.

I know the technology is not new – I am well aware that some kind of digital Big Brother is watching my every move no matter whether I am browsing, watching or messaging. I am well accustomed to the fact that if, in an idle moment, I search for an impractical new pair of shoes online, my Facebook page, any websites I visit and my e-mail server will, for all eternity, be plastered with adverts for a massive variety of red strappy sandals that I am never going to buy.

My colleague, after searching “female DJ with sunglasses” in a quest to remember Radio 1 legend Annie Nightingale’s name, is now constantly inundated with adverts for “cool DJ shades”, which she neither wants nor needs.

Another friend told me she had searched for the word “humid” in an online thesaurus and was suddenly bombarded with ads for athlete’s foot remedies. She is certain there is a connection. I am less sure – having some scepticism whether Google has the medical knowledge to allow it to work out that if she spends a lot of time with her trotters in slightly damp conditions, such an affliction could occur – but I accept anything is possible.

It is the fact this targeting has become quite so intrusive that bothers me. TV watching, for example, is something, that, if not private, is definitely personal. Indeed, my Don’t Tell The Bride obsession is something I might not want even my best friends to know about. Therefore, why on earth would I want to be reminded that Channel 4 – that broadcast version of the cool kid at school – knew and logged what I was watching?

Of course, Digital Big Brother doesn’t always get it right. According to my Google ad search settings, Digital Big Brother is aware of my age (how, I don’t know), that I am female and that I like “calculators and reference tools” and “maps”. Managed to throw them off the scent on that one.

Perhaps I’ve managed to keep all of my internet shopping to my home laptop, but I doubt it – perhaps I’ve discovered a glitch in Google’s inner workings.

It is actually something of a relief that they know so little about me, for an investigation has demonstrated that Digital Big Brother has some frighteningly human properties. The study, by US university Carnegie Mellon, set up automated fake profiles of 17,370 job seekers who used only Google to look at jobs boards. The results were astounding. Adverts for coaching for high-earning executive positions was subsequently marketed far harder to men – 1,852 times to the male group and only 318 times to the female group – than women. Funny that.

In its response, Google muttered something about “the way” advertisers buy and target their adverts using the search engine, suggesting it was the advertisers themselves who had chosen to target men. But while web advertisers like to call it “customisation”, there is a fine line between that and profiling, which is, without a doubt, discrimination.

And while Channel 4 sending me e-mail reminders to finish watching my telly programmes is not discriminatory – indeed, I’m sure they’re keen to harass as many people as they can get their digital hands on – it is just plain stalkerish, so I’d prefer it if they stopped. Now, please.

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