Opinion: Is Big Brother Good Business?

Customers want assurances that the personal data they share will be protected—and not exploited

I am a big fan of the Beatles channel on Sirius XM radio, which plays nothing but Beatles songs. But I’m not a fan of seeing advertisements for Fab Four-related knickknacks everywhere I go online after I listen to the station. Maybe I’m imagining things, but these ads always seem to appear on Facebook first.

Stories of Facebook users discussing a product or service on the site, only to see an advertisement for the same product in their news feed hours later, are ubiquitous. You might think that Facebook is literally listening to us through our phone microphones, despite its claims to the contrary. But the truth is much more nuanced: Facebook is so ingrained in both our online and offline lives that it doesn’t need to listen in to know everything about our buying habits.

All it takes is entering a loyalty card attached to a private phone number into a card reader at most retail locations. Third-party data collectors, such as Nielsen Catalina Solutions, acquire purchase history and consumer data from a long list of retailers. That information is then bought by the product manufacturer and matched to the corresponding customer Facebook accounts, The Wall Street Journal reports.

There are other ways Facebook can track users in the real world. For instance, it can use various location signals—such as Wi-Fi access points and IP addresses—to track users’ movements. Facebook probablytracks my Beatles listening habits through the websites I visit instead of listening through my microphone, but that does not make it any less creepy.

"Our data is gold, and we’re giving it away for free."

The shocking thing is that Facebook users sign themselves up to be tracked this way when they accept the social network’s terms of use without reading them. There are ways to limit Facebook’s tracking ability, though these steps are not always clear or easy to implement.

Data’s Value

As technology becomes more ingrained in our day-to-day lives in the name of convenience, our data is increasingly used for profit.

“All Facebook users have to understand that the reason that the fi rm is so profitable is because our data is gold, and we’re giving it away for free,” said Scott J. Shackelford, an associate business professor at Indiana University focusing on cybersecurity law and policy, to the Los Angeles Times.

The inherent value of personal data is one reason #DeleteFacebook has been trending on Twitter in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook unknowingly allowed data on more than 50 million people to be leveraged in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook users are leaving the social network because their valuable and private personal data was not treated with the level of security and respect that it deserves.

Respect = Reward

While no c-store takes on as much risk with consumer data as Facebook, retailers can learn from its trials. The main lesson: Customers want assurances that the personal data they share will be protected—and not exploited.

No one goes to a c-store thinking, “I can’t wait to sign up for a loyalty program!” They think, “Ugh, I need coffee. That place looks good.” They want a simple, straightforward experience, and they don’t want a

sales pitch to follow them wherever they go. I don’t want to see online advertisements for the coffee I bought at a c-store, just like I don’t want to see Beatles ads after listening to Beatles music. I don’t want to be tracked, whether it’s in the real world or online.

It’s a balance, for sure. Retailers want the ability to learn about their customers. Consumers want the ability to access retailers online whenever they want. But as the Facebook episode has taught us, it’s about respecting boundaries. Respect the privacy of your customers, and they will reward you.

Jackson Lewis is CSP’s technology editor. Reach him at

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