Jim SternWho is spying on you?

Bet you didn’t know that I can.
Even if you have never met me.
Even if I don’t know you.

We all know the NSA can look at every email and text you send or receive. They could listen to any cell phone call you make. In fact, there is probably nothing about you they can’t find out pretty easily. The NSA is a government agency, so this ability to spy isn’t shocking.

If you listened to the Schilling Show last week you know that it’s not just the government spying on you. Just by using Facebook you have opened yourself up to observation by hundreds of different companies.

From Google and Apple, to Starbucks, Target and the Kroger’s grocery store, they all buy and sell your information. They track everything you do, they know who your friends are, where you live, shop and play. They know your children’s names and who their friends’ friends are, your income, your ethnicity, and more.

Hopefully, you have heard or have figured out that your Internet Service Provider, cable or satellite TV provider and phone company also sell your information to marketers.

The telecom companies have actually been giving information to the government in exchange for special treatment and selling your information to marketers for years.

You also know that the credit card companies have been selling your information to marketers since the day you got your first credit card.

None of these invasions of privacy seem very shocking any more.
But did you know I can spy on you too?

Even I didn’t know this until recently. Then a friend told me how I can find out pretty much whatever I want about whoever I want—for a fee, of course. But it’s not from some private detective or a hacker. It is from the new breed of data brokers and it is amazing what I can find out about you for just a few dollars.

The only caveats if I want to do it easily and legally are that I must get a business license and also sign up with a credit card processor to accept any type of credit card from customers. If I don’t care to take those steps I can still spy on you, it will just cost me a little more.

If you want to see examples of some of the data brokers’ websites Google “Tsys Merchant Insights” or “Womply next generation data mining” The main Womply FAQ page says they “build groundbreaking products on top of massive amounts of data”. It goes on to say they “serve tens of thousands of merchants” and “offer consumers a delightful way to earn rewards at their favorite places”.

That sounds innocent enough. Data brokers regularly send me emails asking to trade my customer database for valuable information. They can tell me what TV shows you watch if you have cable or satellite TV, what other shopping, financial and government databases you appear in, and every bit of data on them is for sale or trade. I let them have what information I have about you to gain a membership and then they will evaluate how much credit I can get towards the purchase of other database information. But even if they tell me my data is worthless, it is now accessible to everyone the data broker can get to pay for the data. They promise me the more data about my customers I can provide the more credits they will give me. But they guarantee nothing until I give them complete access to my customer database.

Why would I want to do this? So that I can advertise only to qualified customers—people in a certain geographic area, with a particular ethnicity and income. Or perhaps I want to target the friends of people that are already my customers. Maybe I want access to photographs to use in my ads and not have to worry about copyright infringement; your family photos are for sale too.

But what does this,really mean? It means that with just one piece of data and a fee I can know almost as much about you as the NSA knows. If I deal with an unscrupulous data broker I get your social security number and very personal information. But even an honest broker is willing to sell me almost anything you could imagine.

How often,do you dine out?
Where do you dine?
Did you order alcohol while you dined?
All just in case I want to market to people that dine out on Tuesday nights, eat pasta, and order red wine.

I can also find out what you paid toward your child’s college education, how much your child owes in student loans and how many grants and scholarships he received. How much did you get for a tax refund last year? Do you have a gym membership? Donate to charity? Write checks to a particular business? I can get it all.

If I am given either your email address, your street address, your name, or one of your account numbers, I can get almost anything about you given to me by a data broker.

If you use your credit card at my business I can buy a report of every purchase you have made with any credit card, by check or by cash if you used a ‘rewards’ card.

Literally if you buy a cup of coffee at my business I can get a report of what you bought at the drug store last week, last month or last year, often at the item level.

If I have your email address I can buy a list of your friends or what you spent using your American Express Card last Tuesday or get copies of the photos stored on your phone.

Without anything more than one of the following, your mailing address, your email, your Sam’s Club Card or Harris Teeter Discount Card, or your physical home address I can find out your age, income, who insures your auto, how many likes you made on Facebook recently, if you watch TV more than four hours a day, or if you used WIFI at the coffee shop and for how long.

If something about you is being stored electronically then anyone can now legally buy it with very few exceptions, like medical data. But there are dishonest data brokers that have your medical records and will gladly sell them for a price.

We all know big brother IS watching. But until laws change to reign in the data brokers literally everyone COULD BE watching.

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  1. Ken, that is a great question.

    I know that some detailed medical records are available illegally through off shore data brokers. I suppose an unscrupulous insurance company or attorney might be interested in prior private medical expenses to evaluate you in a lawsuit.

    Through my credit card processor I can get what a persons medical and dental spending. But only if paid by credit card or if the facility uses tele-check. But if I wanted to find out if a prospective employee had paid a lot of medical bills or was making payments to a mental health facility I can do that under the guise of ensuring the safety of my staff and other clients. But of course I could also use it to make a decision on how much this person might add to my company health care costs.

    The shopping and TV records are all sold as marketing tools. If most of my customers walk to my place to get a cup of coffee I would want to reach everyone in my neighborhood with a TV commercial. I can find out who watches cable TV in my neighborhood between 6 and 8 am and which show gets the most viewers. This save me from advertising to ‘bad’ prospects.

    But what facilitates deeply targeted marketing could also facilitate being prejudice. I may want to advertise to people of Cuban decent because they are current customers in my business and they make large purchases.

    But what if I am trying to exclude rather than include certain groups? Let’s say I want to exclude a particular group from getting the discount I am going to offer by mail to my neighborhood. I can say to the data broker I want to get the names, mailing and email addresses of everyone within five miles of my business, but to exclude people of one particular ethnic background.

    It also seems to be getting a little too invasive.

    I can also buy information for everyone in my area that has never been to my place and makes purchases of coffee by cup or by the pound at neighborhood restaurants, coffee shops or grocers. They use my customer database, credit and check purchases and aggregate it with the data from the other businesses. I can now figure out, with the databrokers assistance (fees) how to best reach my audience.

    I have mixed feeleings about all of this.

    As a business owner it is always a goal to maximize advertising dollars. But I can see how this could be used to directly stalk my children or my customers. I also know that if we don’t keep an eye on this it could easily get out of hand. If it hasn’t already.

  2. It is formidably harrowing how any entity (single, multitude, corporate or especially government) could through existing mined data peg anyone or case any business unaware. The prevalence of this is insane and the diminishment to expectations of privacy is depraved. It is liken to the contrast between entering in through the straight and narrow compared to a broad and wide way.


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