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Russell Wangersky: All eyes on us

It started with the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nev.


Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky


I mean, it started with pictures of the Clown Motel. I drove by it a few weeks ago and should have stopped and taken a picture. Trying to explain its unique and creepy roadside presence, I used my phone to search Google Images to show a friend.


My phone dies quickly, so I keep almost no energy-eating features open, especially social media — I looked up the pictures, bailed out and shut down Safari.

So imagine my surprise when, Wednesday, my Facebook page on an entirely different computer system suddenly showed me a sponsored ad for TripAdvisor, not only offering me great rates at the Clown Motel, but showing me the same pictures I’d searched a week earlier. (Guaranteed, there are privacy settings I’m unaware of and not using, but then again, I’m hardly alone in that.)

It’s only a funny little example, but the sheer amount of data cross-pollination is fascinating.

But just because someone isn’t looking at your stuff doesn’t mean that they can’t.

Now, I’m not a believer in vast conspiracies — fact is, it’s just so hard to maintain an involved major conspiracy without someone slipping up and spilling the beans.

But I am interested in how much information we offer up every day, how that information is being harvested and stored, and how it might end up being used.

I was riding in a taxi a week ago with another writer who decided to show me the Hey Siri feature — when she wants to search the internet, she just says “Hey Siri” and a voice-activated search launches automatically. It’s pretty much like Alexa — Amazon has a device that lets you voice-activate Alexa, and even sells “Echo” boosters to “let Alexa hear you from across the room even when music is playing. All you have to do is ask.”

Now, I love open mike night as much as the next guy.

“Test, one, two. Test one, two. Hearing me OK?”

But idea of having an open mike in my pocket or listening to my living room is a little scary. After all, it wasn’t that long ago (March 2017) that it was revealed, to considerable uproar, that the CIA was using a tool called “Weeping Angel” to turn some Samsung smart TVs into live microphones.

I understand the convenience, but I’m not even keen to have location services activated on my phone, just because it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that my whereabouts might be useful to someone I don’t want to have them.

I also know you get hooked on convenience. If you’re used to just barking a question at your phone, it’s probably hard to go backwards and start punching letters into a box again.

But it sure could add to the amount of information about you that is swimming out there in the Great Ether. Especially because, once you’re signed up to a service, terms and conditions in the great long contract agreements seem to change without ever explaining the whole length and breadth of the things that are changing or will change.

I agree that there’s so much information out there that individuals are probably specks of dust in a galaxy of ones and zeros.

But just because someone isn’t looking at your stuff doesn’t mean that they can’t.

Here’s an interesting thought to add to that mix: in a recent Ontario court case, an insurer tried to escape liability for injuries in an automobile accident by arguing that a couple was actually married — using photographs harvested from their Facebook pages to make its case.

It lost, with the judge writing that the insurance company, “also seeks to rely on Mr. Ali and Ms. Shire’s Facebook photos. It submits that they regularly feature one another in their profile pictures and that Mr. Ali has expressed affection for Ms. Shire in a picture posted on October 8, 2015. It also submits that there are many comments on the pictures from friends and family, which implies that they are perceived as a couple in their community.”

OK then.

The use of harvested data certainly isn’t perfect. I’m not likely to be in Nevada again for a long time, so discount rates at the Clown Motel aren’t going to make me a TripAdvisor customer.

But it’s unsettling to know how closely they were watching.


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.



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