The most ironic thing on TV last week

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TL;DR: 117 different organizations tracked me as I watched Daily Show episode on big data and privacy.

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, once Bush CIO Theresa Payton talked about how big data degrades privacy. As a person who spends a lot of time on the subjects of data, privacy, and ethics, I had high hopes.

Unfortunately, she didn’t say anything groundbreaking—most of her examples were rehashed anecdotes, like Target marketing to pregnant teenagers—but it’s good that she was raising the issues to a broad audience.

theresa payton daily show

I was disappointed by her response to one of Stewart’s questions. Paraphrasing (because I can’t find a transcript): She lumped the people who might invade your privacy into three groups: bad guys, corporations, and governments. When Stewart asked whether it was OK for the latter two to have data—since, after all, the criminals might get at it, and maybe they can’t be trusted—she dismissed him outright, almost belittling his perfectly valid question. Not good.

But the part that cracked me up happened during the commercials. The episode was peppered with ads. During one of them, I noticed a tiny button in the upper right corner offering more details about the ads. When I clicked it, I was taken to the Consumer Opt Out website. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered that 117 companies were learning about my viewing habits.

Opt-out and the Daily Show

Stranger still: since asking to opt out requires setting a cookie (to tell advertisers not to track you), clearing your cookies (to maintain privacy) actually opts you back in to tracking.

Ah, irony. Alive and well in the world of Big Data.

(Note that there’s a Chrome plug-in you can install to have this opt-out setting persist across cookie-clearings.)