Man in the Machine

Nobody knows me better than Google’s algorithms. No matter what I’m interested in, somehow Google figures it out before I even type a word.

When my friend recently got engaged and was showing me her ring options via Facebook Messenger, Google began suggesting engagement rings to me — all with the same elven-flower motif that my friend liked.

The weird thing was that I hadn’t even searched for rings on my own. Google just knew.

Google also knows that I like Marvel and video games, and therefore all of the ads I see are extolling me to try Marvel Unlimited or The Witcher. Yes, the ad targeting is so spot-on that I already have the things it is trying to sell me.

My phone also knows me well, as it has stopped trying to correct my profanity quite as often. I am no longer sending people mother ducking texts, at least.

I grant, though, that all the strange Viagra and penis enhancement spam I get seems to imply the Internet firmly thinks I am a man — and some algorithm out there also thinks that I wear Ugg boots, which I somehow find even more alarming.

But the reality remains that, in most cases, the Internet probably knows me better than a lot of my real-life acquaintances and friends.

The question is this: Is that bad?

A lot of people would say yes immediately. These are the people who set their browser histories to wipe daily and try to leave as small of a virtual footprint as humanly possible: Facebooks without profile pictures or a single post; Twitters still with egg avatars.

The root of all fears seems to be identity theft. That our behavior gets tracked is one thing; it’s not that hard of a leap to worry that our keystrokes, passwords and other sensitive information would also be stored away for some nefarious hacker and fraudster to discover. (My own information was supposedly leaked during the great PlayStation Network hack of 2011, but I just changed my passwords and was careful, and I think things are OK now. Knock on wood.)

There’s also the unnerving specter of Big Brother watching, the way our lives can be reduced to calculations and predictions with little effort, just based on how we like to browse Amazon. The coldness of The Social Network comes to mind: Jesse Eisenberg imperiously dismissing half of humanity based on his marvelous codes.

While I don’t particularly mind these days if Google offers me customized ads and tries to predict all my searches with terrifying accuracy before I type more than four letters, in my younger days, I did set up a vigorously stringent filter on my Firefox browser to keep myself as protected as possible. The best tool you can use is probably NoScript, a browser extension that automatically blocks all website scripts (even the hidden ones) from running — unless you personally OK them. Not even Amazon.com will load unless you permit it, making NoScript an extremely thorough way of filtering every single website you go to. It gets annoying if you go to a wide variety of websites, but the privacy it offers is incomparable.

Hey, even Edward Snowden says it’s a good tool to use to hide from government surveillance. It doesn’t get much more secure than that.

EDITOR’S NOTE: STAFF WRITER PAIGE TAKEYA IS TEMPORARILY FILLING IN FOR CHRISTA WITTMIER. FOLLOW PAIGE ON TWITTER @LORDMAYOCLOUD. CHRISTA’S SUPERTECH COLUMN WILL RETURN SHORTLY.