12 Ways Companies Spy On You

google stalking

Photo: Nikko Russano / Flickr, CC

Companies know a lot about you. Probably more than you’re comfortable with.Charles Duhigg of the New York Times wrote yesterday about how major corporations use sophisticated statistical analysis in an effort to know exactly how to target customers.

Data mining is a $100 billion industry, according to Martin Lindstrom’s “Brandwashed,” which we used along with other sources to compile the following techniques companies use to track you.

Stores use customer loyalty cards to track and predict customer spending habits

Have you ever wondered why your local drugstore or grocery store ties all the best sale deals to their free loyalty card program?

It's all about the information. Every time you swipe that card to score a deal on prime sirloin or toilet paper, you are also handing over valuable data to corporate officials, according to Lindstrom in Brandwashed.

Every credit card transaction provides companies with information about your spending habits

So what about the stores without loyalty programs? Are they leaving your personal information alone?

Not quite. Major corporations like Walmart instead rely on their vast repository of credit card transactions to track and predict customer habits, according to Lindstrom in Brandwashed. And credit card companies also use their own information to look for clues that customers might stop making payments.

Mobile loyalty apps are convenient, but they provide companies with more data to track you

Facebook uses software to track user activity on sites across the Web

Facebook made waves last year when users learned that 'like' and 'share' buttons found on sites across the web could send information back to Facebook servers.

But that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

While you're logged into your Facebook account, the site keeps a timestamped list of the URLs you visit which it can pair with your name, list of friends, Facebook preferences, email address, IP address, screen resolution, operating system and browser.

Companies use cookies to see your Web searching habits

Google stores a massive amount of information about its users -- from your most popular web search to your favourite news site. The company recently announced a change in the privacy policy that will potentially allow Google to beef up its advertising revenue. Under the new policy, Google can select its sidebar ads for you based on what you've viewed on YouTube or read on Google+ as well as selecting info from your mobile device and associating it with your Google account.

In fact, most companies use Web cookies to track consumers Web habits. A growing number of companies are using even more complex data-mining programs that use a marketing tool called 'personalised retargeting,' says Lindstrom in Brandwashed.

Philips and Hewletter-Packard, for example, signed on with a data-mining tool called Predicta that uses your web searches and website visits to create a customer profile that can be used to target you with customised deals or product pop-up.

Encoded in the bar codes of digital coupons is a lot of information, including your computer's IP address and where and when you found the coupon

In the age of iPhones and androids, digital coupons sent straight to your inbox or found on the Web are very popular among consumers.

Print out the coupon or send it to your cell phone, and you're good to go.

But many companies combine this data with other personal information about you stored in their databank, 'creating a profile so intricate and detailed it would impress a CIA operative,' Lindstrom wrote in Brandwashed.

Online music providers use your account to find your personal information and then share it with third parties

When's the last time you read your iTunes user agreement?

Under recent terms, iTunes users had to consent for Apple to know where their iPhone, iPad, MacBook or other apple device was at all times AND give Apple the power to share that information with three parties, according to Lindstrom in Brandwashed.

Apple isn't alone. Free web music provider Pandora has an app for Android phones that gathers and sends hoards of personal data, including your gender, birthday and even your phone's unique device ID, to advertising agencies, according to an April 2011 analysis of the app by a application security company reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Information stored in your online dating profile can be sold to other companies

Not even your love life is sacred to big corporations.

Popular free dating website OkCupid sends users' information, such as gender, age and zip code to two companies that then auction off the data to other companies, according to a Stanford study last year as reported by Julia Angwin at The Wall Street Journal.

Companies like Walmart have figured out how to get customers to willingly hand over extremely sensitive personal information

Walmart allows customers to cash their paychecks, but in turn requires they provide their drivers licence and Social Security Number -- both of which end up in the company's digital database, according to Lindstrom in Brandwashed.

Retailers and supermarkets are also tracking your physical movement in stores, so they know your shopping patterns

Companies aren't just content with watching your virtual life.

Many retailers, from malls to supermarkets, rely on video cameras and motion detectors to track customer movement, which they say helps them create a better customer experience (that is, sell more products), according to the New York Times.

Some companies are taking it to the next level. During the 2011 holiday shopping seasons, some malls unveiled campaigns to track customer movement using their cell phone signals, according to a report by Annalyn Censky at CNN Money.

High-tech electric meters allow utilities to view their customers' power usage in real time

Imagine someone at your utility company being able to know when you had turned on a light switch or run your dishwasher.

That will soon be the reality for many customers as public and private utility companies across the country are in the process of installing so-called 'smart meters' -- high tech utility meters that officials say will improve efficiency and help customers save energy. But they also let utilities track customer usage as it happens, which has led some customers to protest their installation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Supermarkets have a very specific way of tracking customers

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