Last week I noticed something curious.
My Facebook feed was suddenly becoming cluttered with mummy and baby advertisements.
Out of nowehere, I was being targeted with sponsored posts for everything from pregnancy health vitamins, to baby clothing and children’s books.
It was bizarre because I have no children — and not that it’s anyone’s business — but I don’t plan on it anytime soon.It didn’t bother me at first—I found it curious and even a little bit funny considering I am not at a stage of life where I’m remotely interested in reading about babies, let alone Googling them.
But I was not concerned enough to investigate further, or to flag up the ad as unwanted content.
Mostly that’s because at first, I reasoned that it was only fair from Facebook’s mysterious algorithms that I — a 30-year-old woman in my childbearing prime from advertisers' point-of-view — might be interested in baby content.
The wall-to-wall baby spam was irritating but amusing — a bit like an overbearing relative asking me when I’m going to hurry up and get married.
I mentioned it in passing to a few friends - and initially chalked up the phenomenon to my age, and maybe because I frequently ‘like posts’ from friends with babies across my social media profiles.
But yesterday I made a discovery that transformed the experience from odd, to downright creepy.
It became clear Facebook actually thought I was pregnant.
And I think I know why.
'Big Mother' is always watching
Like many women, I use a period tracking app to chart my monthly cycle.
Yesterday, I opened the app to make an update, only to find an alert flashing at me.
It was informing me that my period was very, very ‘late’.
In fact, it wasn’t late at all. I had simply forgotten to log last month’s cycle properly, and, because I have notifications for that app turned off, I hadn’t noticed when I didn’t complete the entry.
But the app had certainly noticed.
I corrected my cycle, and almost instantly the baby ads just stopped.
It was then I began to feel uneasy as my mind made the connection between my period tracking app believing I had missed a cycle ten days ago, and my Facebook account that was suddenly trying to sell me pregnancy paraphernalia within days of my period appearing to be ‘late’.
I have used this particular app for so long I don’t even remember when I downloaded it, or why I chose that particular brand.
So I pulled up the app’s privacy settings and noticed that while it promised not to share details I ‘entered manually’ with its third-party partners, the terms and conditions’ language cleverly avoided ruling out sharing information about aggregated data - like patterns or trends.
I have chosen not to name the app here - it is not a well-known one, and appears to have been made by a small developer.
Unless I have smoking-gun proof that it was selling my data to Facebook advertisers, I am not willing to make the accusation and damage someone’s business - they may have meant well, and it is an app I had until now enjoyed and used loyally for years.
Data brokers then aggregate this deidentified health information and sell it to third party buyers; for example Adam Tanner of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science estimates that a large pharmaceutical company might pay between $10 million and $40 million per year for data, consulting and services from Iqvia alone.
What’s more, I wasn’t sufficiently troubled by the bizarre ads when I was seeing them to check the ‘why am I seeing this’ option on Facebook, or even to screenshot them.
This problem of proof is not just a quandary for journalists - but for any of us who are concerned enough to try to investigate how our personal data is collected and shared online.
Tech companies have an incentive to use opaque language, and the process to work out which apps are communicating with which websites, how often and why can become a confusing process as a result.
What I experienced has come to be known as ‘surveillance capitalism.’
For lay people like me, big tech has long felt like a wizard behind a curtain — clever, capable of changing how we experience the world in wonderful and spectacular ways — but ultimately powerful without enough accountability.
This experience has confirmed to me I know too little about how much my social media technology and apps know about me.
In a world where advertising is no longer restricted to billboards and magazines, I don’t want it to become so intrusive it leaves me feeling unnerved.
How did we get to this point? Humans are naturally fascinated by our own health - many of us love to count our steps, track calories, record our fitness routines in ways that can help us improve our lives immensely.
It is a no-brainer that developers and social media giants have worked out how to monetise that precious data, and I hadn’t lost any sleep over it- yet.
In many ways, algorithms have made my life better, more convenient, and more efficient.
Those clever little trend-sniffers have connected me with my new favourite bands, learned my style and promoted dresses and shoes I’ve dutifully then gone on to purchase.
But technology has moved on in the intervening time, and there are now other ways to keep an eye on employees , as an article in the Washington Post describes: Devices worn on employees’ bodies are an increasingly valuable source of workforce health intelligence for employers and insurance companies.
Algorithms have uncovered my guilty pleasure and push the juicy ‘agony aunt’ columns I love to read to the top of my news feeds.
But algorithms are rather like the body’s bacteria - you might not be able to see or understand them - but you can be certain they are not always working for you.
Yesterday, a sinister thought popped into my mind.
In future, my social media tech is likely to know I’m pregnant before I do - and I find that deeply unsettling.You might have heard about how US retailer Target was able to figure out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did. Many people who were disturbed by my story after it went viral on Twitter noted, darkly, the news that Google has acquired Fitbit.
Any time a company gathers more of your data, you have to wonder how soon the information being collected now to sell things to you now be weaponised against you in future.
Where does it end?
It is clear the dystopia is already here.
Insurers are already linking customers’ premiums to their diet and health tracking apps, rewarding those who lead a healthy lifestyle and penalising those who don’t.
The dark side of period tracking apps has been well covered by tech journalists.
Icky stories have emerged in recent years revealing some companies were secretly using period tracking calendars in an attempt to track the moods of their female employees.
But most upsettingly, an overwhelming volume of responses I received from women who had experienced a similar phenomena on their social media revealed it was happening following pregnancy trauma.
Multiple women revealed they were still being slammed with ‘happy baby’ advertisements on their social media feeds after miscarriage or stillbirth.
This is inappropriate, disturbing, and is something that should be a priority for the human beings behind these algorithms to find a way to address.
However they do it, surely it must be done without forcing grieving women to give up even more personal information in the process.
Inevitably, I can imagine that this could lead to yet more sponsored posts hawking things for sale - like happy pills and self-help books.
Chillingly, as several women who have had miscarriages have claimed to me - they received ads for infertility treatment immediately after their pregnant loss.
For anyone trying to get pregnant and struggling, the cheerful baby ads must be a galling reminder of their situation, sandwiched callously between pictures of what your old high school friends had for lunch and viral dog videos.
'Why don't you just use a paper calendar?'
Many people asked me - somewhat condescendingly from men who have zero experience in this field - ‘why don't you just use a paper calendar to track your period’?
Without revealing more information than I am willing to share with the world (and apparently several of my apps), these trackers can be life-changing.
Many, many women in your life will not not lucky enough to have an easy, pain-free, cycle that runs like clockwork.
For many of us, it will be a constant, monthly feature of our lives for the better part of three decades.
Many women I know track their periods for their clever in-app analysis functions.
The apps give you knowledge - and knowledge is power. Tracker apps can help us save time, money and prevent embarassment.
Some women have irregular cycles, and some are struggling to get pregnant.
Some might have corresponding health problems that worsen throughout their cycle, their hormones might affect mental health disorders and medication, or they may be using a natural counting method because they can’t use hormonal contraception for health reasons.
On the convenience side - which is really no one else’s business but a women’s own - knowing their cycle patterns might affect anything from when and how they choose to have sex, to what colour clothing they wear on a due day.
It might give them a warning to pack sanitary items in advance, rather than avoid an expensive late-night rush to a corner shop for a heavily marked-up box of tampons.
Some using these apps will be trying to get pregnant- many are also using the apps to avoid it.
Knowing exactly what stage of your cycle you are at when you are most at risk of pregnancy is a great help to many heterosexual women, who are still largely lumped with the responsibility for contraception with all the costs to their health and wallet, and the trial and error that comes with it.
The way many of the apps are designed assume the user would be happy to get pregnant - they are often pink-themed, focused on analysing when you are ovulating, and flashing excitable messages when your period is late.
It lead me to wonder how many of these apps meant for women are designed by men - a quick spot of research confirmed mine was.If you don't think that matters, author Caroline Criado Perez has recently written a book about how products designed by men - from ill-fitting spacesuits to car passenger seatbelts designed for men’s bodies - can actually end up excluding and even endangering women.
We are the products for sale
Since my tweets about my discovery went viral, I’ve been thinking about my next steps.
The solution doesn’t have to be for me to stop using a tool that has improved my life on a monthly basis.
But this has been is a welcome wake-up call for me. I will be learning more about how to more carefully navigate technology that mines my personal data, and about how to investigate it as a journalist.
My experience reveals the cynical side to these mysterious algorithms that meticulously analyse my online behaviour to construct a picture of my fears and desires - to then sell on to advertisers.
When we hand over our data for free in exchange for a small online convenience, we become the product for sale.
It is up to me to work out now what my boundaries are, and to decide the price of convenience.
While I might like the algorithms now that direct me to nice dresses and new music now, I can’t help but wonder how that data could one day be used to shape my future.On that question, Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror series is already giving me nightmares.
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Fight for your privacy
We must not be complacent about intrusive technology- we are in an arms race to regulate before we lose control of our valuable personal data, and our privacy with it.
It is plainly a a moral issue too. Surely we can all agree that grieving women being spammed with baby ads following pregnancy loss is just plain cruel - and surely not an insurmountable challenge for the tech geniuses out there.
The biggest weapon in our arsenal is surely that the companies trying to sell to us must work to avoid losing our trust- because if we consumers are good at one thing, it’s voting with our wallets.
I have been left feeling amused to have witnessed how quickly Facebook was eager to sell things to my mythical unborn child - a full nine months before it would even supposedly enter the world.
Thanks to my recent tweets using keywords such as 'fertility,' and 'pregnancy' I've no doubt I'm about to be flooded with baby content for all eternity.
I am not pregnant today - sorry, advertisers - but this experience has left me reflecting with some unease about what kind of brave new world that future child could one day be born into.