I promise: you have no idea. After news broke recently that Roomba vacuums can collect data and create maps of homes to sell to other companies, the concept of “surveillance capitalism” has once again reared its profitable head. As it turns out, everything in the digital transformation really is about the customer—specifically customer data.
In the back of our minds, most of us already know this—at least to some degree. We do a Google search for a specific brand of shoes, and the next day, we see ads for those shoes pop up on Facebook and other web pages. Sometimes it’s funny—for instance, when you’re pegged wrong based on a random one-time purchase. Other times, the situation can be downright scary. In late 2016, for instance, two children’s products manufactured by Genesis Toys were said to record conversations and allegedly upload the recordings to a voice technology company with military, law enforcement and intelligence clients. If that doesn’t weird you out, I’m a little concerned.
So—how else are companies not just tracking your personal data, but making money from it? The following are just a few examples of how well the world is getting to know you.
Is there anywhere that you share more information, opinions, and shopping tips than social media? This is one of the most valuable spots companies can cash in and purchase your details for advertising purposes. At the end of the day, Facebook isn’t offering its services out of the kindness of its heart. It’s a business like any other, and the goal of any business is to make money. Says one writer, “your data is the payment they extract” for your daily usage. Everything you like, follow, comment on, and visit is fair game for Facebook’s sales team. By using your personal information, Facebook can sell personalized and pinpointed advertising to companies selling everything from shoes and clothing to dating apps and political views.
Google and Other Search Engines
Beware, the cookies. Did you know that even if you erase your browser history, your search usage still lives on, provided you were logged into your Google Profile when you were searching? Even scarier: the logs go far beyond your text searches. They include recorded voice searches, YouTube views, and everywhere you’ve ever gone with Google Maps. How does Google cash in on that? The company recently found a way to link both online and offline credit card purchases with your online profile. That means not only can they show advertisers that you visited a store after viewing their ad—they can even show if you made a purchase there within a certain period. The new tool allows Google to track some 70 percent of all credit and debit card purchases. Which begs the question: can they also see our account balances? Our lifestyle choices? Where does their access to personal information end?
Cell phone provider
There are certain stores that ask for your phone number every time you shop. While they tell you it’s for demographic purposes, the truth is they are similarly working to link in-store purchases to purchases made online and any other profiles they can match them to. Why? Better, more personalized advertising—and higher profits.
We all get excited when we see the sign: Free Wifi! And we all click “yes” to agree to the terms and conditions without knowing what those conditions truly are. The truth is that free Wifi comes at a price. Target, for instance, uses it to track your movement throughout its store, determining which aisles you visit, how long you stay, and even when you seem confused. They also use it to target—pun intended—certain Cartwheel deals that they think might be relevant or interesting as soon as you walk in the door. A little creepy, right?
So, how does this capitalization of data apply to you? There are some up sides—and some down sides.
On the Up Side
Customers today want a personalized shopping experience. There is no way companies can offer that without collecting personal data. By tapping into your lifestyle, companies can send you much better offers and products, and save you time searching for the things you need. For instance, if Roomba sells your house layout to a furniture manufacturer, that company may be able to personalize your shopping experience to include furniture that fits the exact layout and size of your home. Sounds convenient, right?
On the Down Side
To put it simply, nothing is private. It’s probably safe to assume everything is being sold for profit—without your approval. In one case, based on customer buying habits, when one of its customers was pregnant before her family did! And they mailed her a promotional sales flier to prove it. So much for the big announcement.
With the continued development of the IoT, the collection of personal data is only going to grow. And while it is sold as convenience, many of us have no idea what we are buying. Yes, data is useful. And yes, it offers a more personal user experience. But in the end, our lives are more than data points. My guess is that in the future, we will be working to find a way to monetize our own data, rather than allowing companies to reap the profits. It may even be our main source of income in years to come.