Hiding Your Pregnancy From the Internet Is Shockingly Difficult

It's not just future grandparents who're very keen to know the minute you've got a bun in the oven. Corporations want a heads-up so they can bombard you with ads; for marketers, all babies are royal babies. No surprise there! What is startling is just how hard it is to fly under their radar these days.

Mashable picks up a talk recently given at the Theorizing the Web conference by Princeton assistant sociology prof Janet Vertesi, who decided to treat her pregnancy as an experiment: What would it take to keep her good news a secret from the big data crunchers at places like Facebook and Target? What would it take to keep from tipping her own hand to corporations?

Now, it's not really news that there's a lot of money riding on pregnant women and companies are investing hugely in data-driven marketing that help them spot their gravid customers. A couple of years ago, the New York Times famously reported that Target was able to spot a teen's pregnancy before her parents. We leave clues about ourselves everywhere—an Amazon order of What to Expect When You're Expecting here, a big Pea in the Pod purchase there. Data-driven marketing companies that can add those clues up, accurately spot a pregnant woman and put ads in her face are rewarded handsomely. According to Vertesi, the average pregnant woman's data is worth $1.50, compared to 10 cents for the average Joe. Think of the diaper sales alone!

What's striking, though, is just how hard it's become to opt out, even if you're actively making an effort. It requires so, so much more than buying your prenatal vitamins in cash. That's just table stakes. First, Vertesi asked her friends and family to keep the news off Facebook and other social media platforms. She browsed for baby products using Tor, the technology that shields your IP address that you might recognize from stories about child porn, Bitcoin and underground drug bazaar Silk Road.

She and her husband paid for what they could in cash, without touching loyalty cards. They also set up a separate Amazon account that delivered to an Amazon locker (rather than an address) and paid with Amazon gift cards purchased in cash. When they got ready to order a $500 stroller on the site, her husband took cash to Rite Aid to buy the requisite gift cards—and found a little sign at the counter warning that the company reserves the right to alert authorities to any suspicious prepaid card purchases.

"Those kinds of activities, particularly when taken in aggregate across the big-data landscape, are exactly the kind of things that would take you as likely engaging in criminal activity, as opposed to just having a baby," Vertesi said.

In short, if you want to hide your pregnancy from big data, you're got to operate like a drug dealer. Which is disturbing. Who's even got time for these sort of cloak-and-dagger machinations?

Another panelist, Facebook's Winter Mason, defended targeted advertising as fundamentally pretty useful to customers. Better a Facebook ad for a stroller than an ad for beer you're not supposed to drink for nine months, in short. And it's not like you don't get similar advertising onslaughts pegged to various life milestones. For instance, the minute you switch your Facebook status to "engaged," it unleashes a raging torrent of ads for Weddington Way and crank diets. Which is annoying, sure.

But pregnancy is so fraught, and it's already such a struggle to keep it private, that this raises hackles I didn't even know I had. (Normally, I am the first person to sign up for a loyalty card.) It's unnerving. Who's got access to this information? How specific is it?

Besides being alarming from a privacy perspective, it's especially aggravating when you consider the ways that America often fails to support mothers. Women in this country routinely worry, for instance, about job security and how in the hell they're going to handle childcare—especially women working low-wage jobs at the kind of places that peddle Pampers. Everyone's lining up to make a buck off your uterus, but the minute you need ask for universal pre-K, suddenly nobody knows anything about these "babies" of which you speak.

Photo via Shutterstock.