Consumer Intelligence Gathering

Companies such as Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Netflix, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Walmart, Ebay - to name a few - are all in the business of collecting consumer information. This data is warehoused and analyzed to assist with making business decisions as well as provide customizable experiences based on user habits and preferences.

As a consumer of Internet connected technology, you are part of this large data gathering mechanism that continually learns about you through your interactions and the information you provide.

All Internet capable devices (i.e. computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, video game system, smart TV, Roku, etc.) possess a physical unique identifier enabling it to function on the Internet. Pairing that identifier with the account information a user submits in order to interact with the device, locks in their identity information to the provider. From this point on, the provider gathers information about that customer in order to provide a more personalized interface. Customers of the popular Netflix movie streaming service would recognize this personalization when recommended movies are suggested based on prior selections.

The growing collection of Internet devices is increasingly being referred to as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and includes many devices you might not even consider like home kitchen appliances, fitbit and other body wearable devices, residential heating and cooling systems, home security systems, AI (artificial intelligence) voice activated devices like the Amazon Echo, automobiles, traffic cameras, and even toys that interact with their child owners.

Although the advantages or disadvantages of gathering consumer intelligence can be debated, it is largely decided by an individual’s comfort level on the topic. However, one must not dismiss the importance of understanding exactly how information will be used. For this reason users must be deliberate in reviewing “End User License Agreement” (EULA), or Terms of Use / Service Agreements before agreeing to use a technology product or service. Often times, customer information will be sold to third party organizations for target marketing or other vaguely described purposes that are outlined in the agreements.

Some advocacy and privacy groups have expressed concerns about the warehousing of data being used for unintended purposes now and in the future. An example being a health insurance provider gaining access to historical trends of unhealthy lifestyle choices (i.e. Fitbit data revealing inconsistent exercise, loyalty card data showing unhealthy grocery or restaurant selections) to determine premiums. Such groups have also expressed concerns about privacy regarding interactive children’s toys always listening inside a child’s room, learning about them, and storing such data.

Some examples of technology behaviors that generate information about your activities include:

  • Loyalty cards (grocery, restaurant, and department stores)
  • Smartphone apps (they request access to specific phone features for a reason)
  • Home security products (if connected to the Internet)
  • Online purchases (Amazon, Walmart, Ebay)
  • Credit card purchases (what was purchased and physical purchase location)

Preventing Consumer Intelligence Gathering:

It’s difficult to prevent intelligence gathering since there’s no way around a company like Amazon knowing what you routinely purchase and the address it’s delivered to or Facebook keeping track of what you post or like. However, it is important to keep some perspective on what information you provide a company. A few other options to try and help minimize other forms of behavior tracking include:

  • Log off online accounts when finished using the service (Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Ebay, Facebook, etc.). For example, if you use a Google Gmail account for email, log on to access your email and then log off before moving on to other Internet activities. If you remain logged in all your Internet searching through Google will be tracked and fed in to the profile kept on you.
  • Routinely delete browser Internet history.
  • Review pertinent End User License Agreements, Terms of Service, and Privacy Policies before using a product or service.
  • Be mindful what information you provide when signing up for an account, product, or service. Only supply the minimum of what it required and some people provide as much fake information as possible.
  • Make purchases with cash instead of credit cards.

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