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They’re Watching You: The Dark Side of the Big Data Boom

If you value your personal privacy and hate being spied on, then listen up…

Because if you thought Edward Snowden’s recent revelations were shocking, you won’t believe some of the sneaky measures that governments and companies are going to in order to watch our every move.

And thanks to technological advances, scary invasions of our personal privacy are becoming more affordable – and more easily implemented – than ever before.

Here’s a rundown on a few egregious recent invasions – and the implications for our investments in the up-and-coming Big Data space…

You’re Being Watched… All the Time

Imagine the uproar if Congress passed a law requiring us to wear tracking devices.

Well, guess what? It doesn’t have to pass a law. Because we’re already carrying tracking devices voluntarily.

They’re called mobile phones.

And given that the average American has their phone with them 97% of the time, it’s easy for authorities to monitor us. Even when we’re in the bathroom.

Our obsession with mobile phones is opening the door for “Big Brother” to track our every move.

And of course, this phenomenon isn’t just confined to the United States, either. For example…

~ Trashcan Trackers: In England, Renew London was recently outed for tracking foot traffic in the Cheapside area of central London.

How was the company doing it? By embedding devices in recycling bins on the street, which log a unique identification code on all devices – the media access control (MAC) address.

Renew London Chief Executive, Kaveh Memari, swears the “spy bins” were nothing more than “glorified people-counters in the street.” That’s a bit hard to believe, though, given that the bins also featured LCD advertising screens. Instead, the evidence points to a potentially sophisticated advertising campaign.

~ From Russia With Spying: Apparently, it’s not just the U.S. government that wants to listen in on our phone calls. In Russia, the government is installing devices in subway stations that read the data on people’s mobile phones.

I repeat: They’re not simply tracking passers-by. They’re actually reading the data on their phones, too.

Experts believe this privacy invasion is due to a relatively inexpensive “IMSI catcher” – a device that fools the phone into thinking it’s a cell tower and enabling it to see what phone numbers are being used and even intercept conversations.

Again, the official justification for this is bunk. Authorities swear the tracking is to help identify stolen phones. After all, as Moscow Metro Police Chief, Andrei Mokhov says, it would be illegal to track a person without permission.

However, he says, there’s no law against tracking the property of a company. Like a SIM card, for example. How convenient!

Authorities are operating in a legal gray area. But I’m with Keir Giles of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, who says their reasoning is “weaselley and ridiculous.”

Speaking of which, let’s take a look at the creepy ways that American companies are tracking us…

Smile… You’re on Candid Camera

It’s well-known, of course, that retailers use an array of surveillance cameras in their stores.

But they’re no longer just used to spot thieves. Companies like American Apparel (APP), Swatch (SWGAY), Family Dollar (FDO) and Cabela’s (CAB) now use our mobile phones to track our every move in their stores.

Powered by technology from RetailNext, The New York Times shows how stores are using video footage to study how we navigate the aisles.

That’s not all, though.

If you volunteer any personal information when using in-store Wi-Fi – for example, an email address – the NYT reports that stores “[pull] up a profile of that customer – the number of recent visits, what products that customer was looking at on the website last night, purchase history.”

So they’re essentially building a complete profile on us.

Of course, it’s no different than cookies that are used on internet sites to track our every move. But in this case, instead of keystrokes, they’re getting actual video footage of our behavior.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of privacy invasion is much sneakier and more offensive.

Our mobile phones aren’t the only technologies enabling unprecedented invasions of privacy, though…

Cash Only, Please

Credit and debit cards are just as ubiquitous as mobile phones. And the downside to an increasingly “cashless society” is that there’s a digital footprint of every transaction we make.

That’s not a problem if we’re the only one keeping tabs. But we’re not.

Turns out, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) wants to create a record of every American’s financial transactions, according to Senator Mike Enzi.

Again, it’s done under the auspices of “protection.” What a crock!

As Enzi says, “This bill [creating the CFPB] was supposed to be about regulating Wall Street. Instead, it’s creating a ‘Google Earth’ on every financial transaction… Your permission – not needed.”

Is There Any Way to Escape Prying Eyes?

The simple solution to stop all the prying eyes is to dump our mobile phones.

Don’t laugh. Some of the world’s richest people, including Warren Buffett, don’t use one. (Don’t believe me? See here.)

The same goes for credit cards. Just carry cash.

Of course, none of us are very likely to do either. So, sadly, if we want to enjoy the conveniences of today’s technology, we pay a price by giving up more privacy.

But that doesn’t mean we’re defenseless…

As Nick Pickles, Director of Big Brother Watch, says, “This highlights how technology has made tracking us much easier. And in the rush to generate data and revenue, there isn’t enough of a deterrent for people to ensure that they’re asked for their consent before any data is collected.”

In other words, we should provide consent sparingly and be proactive about what phone apps we allow to track us.

Investment-wise, the implications of privacy invasions couldn’t be more straightforward. Eventually there will be a big public backlash.

And that could be disastrous for companies that rely exclusively on tapping into the “dark side of Big Data” – personal consumer data – to generate revenue.

In a future column, I’ll share some companies (both public and private) that are particularly vulnerable.

For now, though, be on your guard. Both with your personal information and the investment capital you allocate to Big Data companies.

Ahead of the tape,

Louis Basenese