#CyberFLASH: What Is the Cost of Losing Your Online Privacy?

images-126How often do you walk into a store and know more than the sales person about a product you are interested in? The Internet has changed the playing field. As Daniel Pink writes in To Sell is Human, the Internet has brought information parity between buyer and seller. Customers have the ability to gather intelligence about products like never before.

What about people? Are you the customer or the product when you use free services like Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn, to name a few? According to the website, TheirNetWorth.com, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn are worth approximately $350 billion, $90 billion and $7.5 billion respectively. How can companies that offer free services to most customers become so wealthy? Marc Goodman, TED speaker and author of Future Crimes, argues that users who consume such services are in fact the product, not the customer. Anyone who uses a social network, a website, app or a gadget that regularly collects some personal information about them is a product. Goodman says selling ads is the tip of the iceberg. The real money is selling a person’s digital footprint online to the highest bidder by collecting petabytes of information about users.

For example, it may start with simple Google searches, and then shift to using Gmail, Google Docs, Google Talk, and Google Maps. Google, like any other online company, keeps learning about you and never forgets. In 2012, Google decided to create a single unified view about each customer and merged data about users across all 70 of their products and services. Every time you use your Android phone, use their search engine, watch a YouTube video, check Google Maps, or other products, they learn more about you.

Internet spying and surveillance according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal report is one of the fastest growing businesses, estimated to be worth $156 billion a year. Mostly private companies capture data from countless channels. Goodman says one data broker company, Acxiom Corporation, in Little Rock, Arkansas, is in the business of “collecting, collating, and analyzing” more than 50 trillion transactions annually and created more than 700 million profiles globally, with 1500 specific traits per person. In 2002-3, a hacker stole more than 1.6 billion customer records from Acxiom and its clients.

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