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Tracking your every move: IT and your loss of privacy

It seems like every time you read the news there is some new story revealing more about what a dystopian surveillance state we all live in now. 

Cameras record us every time we go out in public, advertising giants Google and Yahoo read all our emails, Apple analyzes all of our photos, cell phone providers sell GPS data from our smart phones that track our every movement, and Facebook … better not to get me started on that toxic company. One effect of this is to make me more alert to the rare occasions when I read in the news something highlighting the positive side of our loss of privacy and when I see one of these stories I am motivated to point it out to readers.

Apple, Google and your cell phone service provider track the location and every movement of your phone, then sell that data to anyone who wants it. Retailers are finding all kinds of uses for location data from customers’ phones and some of that is not evil at all.

Recently I went to a website where I looked at the geolocation history Google had retained from my smart phone.  Displayed was a map showing everywhere I had been.  I hovered my mouse over one of the data points on the map: KFC, 16 West Moreland Street, Dublin, Ireland where I was stationary almost an hour.  My brother and I have a rather odd vacation ritual; we have had meals at Kentucky Fried Chicken in a dozen different countries, so now you know what advertisers probably already knew about my habits.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are finding the mostly-anonymous geolocation data gleaned from millions of customers’ phones can help them at a time when their industry is loosing ground to online retailers.  Analyzing mobile-phone location data helps them track where and for how long people shop, eat, see movies and where they go before and after. This way they gain a better understanding of who consumers are.

A shopping center in Texas used the information to determine that a lot of shoppers owned pets. It installed pet-friendly water fountains and “babysitting stations” then saw the time customers spent in the mall rise by an amazing 40 percent.  A Pennsylvania shopping center identified a lot of online social media chat about “girl’s night out” geographically close to its property.  It opened a “female-friendly organic concept” called Harvest Seasonal Grill that is said to be outperforming similarly-situated sports bars.

Information Technology most certainly is transforming the business world as surely as it has changed all of our personal lives. That is raising privacy concerns and justifiably so because there have been some egregious abuses of our privacy.  The retail businesses mentioned here and elsewhere all claim not to use information that could identify individuals.  That is probably true in this case but they are on the honor system. There are very few laws limiting how anyone can obtain and use our private data.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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