The recent Pegasus spyware scandal is a reminder that privacy is an illusion.
The once-scandalous news of companies spying on you may no longer be a surprise or a matter of concern for most of you, but knowing the ways they can do it can help you be a little more conscious regarding how you give away information, both online and offline.
The fact that major corporations and supposedly trusted brands spy, or collect personal data from you is no longer a secret. We all have had experiences where you see the ads for products you mentioned while speaking to a friend, or some random service you googled just once out of curiosity. Depending on whether you actually needed that product or not, you might have felt a little pleasantly surprised or totally creeped out. I’m certain that by now you must be aware that almost everybody has had these experiences of being ‘spied on’ by companies. Although we all know that the companies spying on you have nothing personal (except for your information) against you, the fact that these companies gather your personal data without your knowledge and/or consent may irk you, and fairly so.
Why do companies need your information? For a number of reasons, all of which boil down to one word - marketing. If you’ve had even the basic level of sales training, you’ll know that after all things are considered and determined to be equal, the only thing that differentiates one business from the other is the level of familiarity and likability. If you doubt that claim, consider a scenario where you receive two marketing email messages. One begins with a generic “Dear customer” and the other with “Dear (Your first name)”. Considering the content and the product they are selling is the same, which one are you more likely to read till the end? If you’re like me or most people, you’ll be more receptive to the one that starts with your name. That’s the power of personalization. And you’ll definitely expect personalized marketing and offers from brands you have already done business with, just like almost 79% of consumers do. Thus, companies gather data from customers, both existing and potential ones, to craft their marketing efforts on an individual level.
Following are seven of the most common yet seemingly unnoticed ways that organizations gather information about you on a personal level, with high accuracy:
The smartphone penetration rate in the UK was 72% in 2020. Personal smartphones are undeniably the best sources for businesses to gather user information from. Considering how we interact with our phones for a majority of our waking hours, they can gather large amounts of data pertaining to our location, behavior, preferences in a number of things from music to restaurants, and can potentially even record what we say and do. Although the permissions for these actions have to be granted by the users, many people, often negligently, grant these permissions without giving it a second thought. However, while there is potential for businesses to eavesdrop on our private conversations, there has been little evidence conclusive of the fact that these corporations do listen to us throughout our daily lives. So, until you know for sure that your phone is listening in on you, you don’t have to be very suspicious of it.
Although there is little evidence supporting our collective claims of companies spying on us through our phones, there is no doubt that our online behavior is tracked by organizations, both business and government ones. Businesses, through their websites, can plant ‘tracking cookies’ in your browser to identify your machine when you revisit their site. These cookies also track which other websites you visit, to know more about you and your demographic. Even your search history on popular search engines like Google, and not so popular ones like Yahoo can be recorded and used to know more about you. Based on your online history, you receive ads that are eerily relevant to you, sometimes before you even search for it. Despite the seeming inevitability of online stalking by businesses, there is somewhat of a silver lining, so to speak. You can choose to disable ad targeting by Google and other search providers to stop them from storing and using your data for ads.
You might be picky about what social media platform you use, but one form of online communication that nearly everyone uses is email. Even if you do not send emails per se, you at least need an email ID to access online services such as social media, e-banking, and digital wallets, etc. Hence, it’s only natural that businesses use this source for gathering information. Although it is highly unlikely that the hundreds of millions of email messages sent every day are read by actual people, they can definitely be scanned using algorithms that can identify specific key phrases and general trends in your email activity. The data gathered by these algorithms can be used to send users targeted ads. However, you’ll be relieved to know that last year, Google announced that they will no longer scan emails for targeted advertising, even for free accounts, which is what most people use. If you’re still skeptical, you can always choose other paid email services, as most free email providers earn revenue through advertising.
Businesses want as much insight into customer behavior as they can get including how people move about in retail stores. Retail stores are known to track customer behavior when they go about their shopping activities in stores for enhancing their in-store experience. Companies usually use cameras installed inside retail facilities to monitor their customers’ movements within different sections and aisles to identify trends that can enable them to design customer experiences better.
We download multiple applications on our phone that ask us for permission to access the camera, and, as mentioned earlier, most people allow these applications to do the same. This enables the applications to turn on the camera and record images. This can also be done using laptop webcams, which has led to the practice of covering laptop cameras with duct tape and paper among a considerable number of people, the most popular ones being Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and former FBI director James Comey. Although claims of companies spying on you using webcams and smartphone cameras are largely unfounded, the fact is that it is possible.
The first corporation that comes to your mind while thinking of companies spying on you will probably be Facebook. Earlier this year, before Facebook’s infamous Cambridge Analytica fiasco, multiple reports emerged suggesting that the social media company approached a number of healthcare institutions seeking patient healthcare data that can later be linked to user accounts to recommend medical services to people. Employers can also check their employees’ health records for purposes pertaining to health insurance, medical leaves, maternity leaves, etc. So the next time you share your healthcare data with your doctor, don’t bet on confidentiality.
Data brokers are individuals or groups who gather data from different sources and sell them to businesses. Personal data such as address, contact details, age, occupation, income, marital status, property and vehicle ownership details, etc. are gathered by data brokers from a variety of sources. These sources include government records like the census, vehicle registration records, surveys, etc. Although this practice is not exactly illegal, customers are often unaware of it. This data is used by companies to send highly personalized marketing communications to customers.
Naveen is the Founder and CEO of Allerin, a software solutions provider that delivers innovative and agile solutions that enable to automate, inspire and impress. He is a seasoned professional with more than 20 years of experience, with extensive experience in customizing open source products for cost optimizations of large scale IT deployment. He is currently working on Internet of Things solutions with Big Data Analytics. Naveen completed his programming qualifications in various Indian institutes.