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“You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything….”. Anyone who is a fan of the TV series Person of Interest will recognize that line as the beginning of the programme’s monologue.

But is it just made-up television entertainment, or is it actually real? Are you really being spied on every hour of every day? Or is that hot babe staring at you from across the street actually really into you?

Post-911, the surveillance in western countries has obviously increased. Cameras are now monitoring streets and sensitive buildings, while heavily armed police and soldiers are protecting public places such as airports, train stations, and important tourist attractions.

But where the surveillance is most pervasive is online, digitally. Things which may seem on first glance to be positives, can actually be something a bit more sinister, if you dig deeper.

I’m not saying we don’t need security, and that the bad guys aren’t out there. Of course they are. But as you will see from the following examples, maybe some of that surveillance and monitoring has gone a bit too far….

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Loyalty Cards

I’m sure you’ve experienced it many times. As you are having your grocery shopping put through the checkout, the operator says “do you have a loyalty card Reward Card Wallet: Store Loyalty Cards & Coupons On Your Phone Reward Card Wallet: Store Loyalty Cards & Coupons On Your Phone Read More with us?”

At first glance, loyalty cards seem cool, getting points the more you shop with them. 10,000 points get you a toaster! Or if you shop with one supermarket chain, you get free coffees and free newspapers instead. If you go to Starbucks Use Your iPhone To Buy Coffee As Starbucks Comes To Passbook [Updates] Use Your iPhone To Buy Coffee As Starbucks Comes To Passbook [Updates] If you are running to that 9 o'clock meeting and are desperately in need of coffee, it could now be just a tap away. Starbucks has arrived on Passbook as the coffee major updates its... Read More , you can get a stamp on your card everytime you buy a coffee, and then you get a free one when you achieve a certain number of stamps (usually 10).

Sounds cool right? So what’s the problem with these cards?

Well first, the supermarket hands you an application form and gets all of your details which they then sell on to data brokers. You’re volunteering your name, address, phone number, date of birth, gender, marital status, and more. Then your grocery purchases start to get logged, and a customer profile is formed. What was that rushing out the door earlier? Only your Privacy saying “adios”.

That customer profile is then examined and tweaked to decide which coupons and offers you will be getting, compared to other shoppers. And food and drink companies will approach the supermarkets and ask for customer data on their product, so they can outdo their rivals. That’s when the junk mail Stamp Out Junk Mail: 4 Tips To Stop Unwanted Snail-Mail Stamp Out Junk Mail: 4 Tips To Stop Unwanted Snail-Mail Every country is different, but believe it or not there are a few things that you actually can do to curb the flow of tree-destroying paper that makes its way to your mailbox. Read More starts arriving by post and the spam emails How Do Spammers Find Your Email Address? How Do Spammers Find Your Email Address? Spam is the closest thing we’ll ever find to an Internet plague. No matter who you are, spam will one day find you and you’ll have no choice but to put up with its pestilence.... Read More start clogging up your inbox.

This article from the Guardian is very eye-opening and worth a read. Do yourself a favor and destroy those loyalty cards now. But then again, as the Guardian article says, they can also track you by your debit and credit card details, and even if you pay cash! So perhaps there is no escape? Maybe starvation is the only option?

Kindle/Kobo/Nook/iBooks Highlighting

After a lifetime of being a lover of paper books, I am finally weakening and starting to enjoy more Kindle books Kindle Unlimited -- Is It Really Worth It? Kindle Unlimited -- Is It Really Worth It? Amazon's rumored "Netflix for books" service is finally here: Kindle Unlimited. In theory, it sounds fantastic. But is it all that it is hyped up to be? Read More and iBooks How To Write and Publish Your First iBook Using iBooks Author How To Write and Publish Your First iBook Using iBooks Author Thinking about producing your own e-book? Apple's iBooks Author is a free, user-friendly tool for producing interactive publications that can reach a large audience of iPad, iPhone & Mac users. Read More . I like the idea of getting the book instantly, getting a free preview, and also being able to look up definitions of words I don’t understand. But the one thing I absolutely love – and which I would never do in a real book – is highlight passages for later reference Why Apple's iBooks Is The Best E-Reader For Making Annotations Why Apple's iBooks Is The Best E-Reader For Making Annotations Read More .  In iBooks, you can then email those highlighted passages to yourself for later reference.

But what if those book purchases and highlights are being looked at? It seems likely if you believe what Edward Snowden says. According to him, Amazon “leaks info like a sieve” to the US Government. This enables authorities to monitor your purchases and keep tabs on what you are reading. Did you highlight a section on bomb making? That will earn you a red flag. Highlighting passages in the Koran? That may prompt an NSA analyst to take a closer look at you.

As for Apple, they deny ever working for the NSA, but a leaked NSA document obtained by the Guardian proves otherwise. The NSA also seems to have backdoor access to the iPhone.

Kind of makes you want to go back to paper books and payphones doesn’t it?

Gmail/Google Searches

In one of my previous articles here on MakeUseOf, I discussed how to totally separate yourself from The Google How To Clear Your Data From Google & Attempt To Regain Some Of Your Privacy How To Clear Your Data From Google & Attempt To Regain Some Of Your Privacy Wiping all trace of you from the web is not easy, but after reading Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin you might just want to try. It's time to stop willingly throwing away your privacy. Read More , if that was what you want. But let us now look at reasons why you may want to do that.

Well, first the obvious – Google searches. Unless you use Incognito mode 4 Uses for Browsing in Privacy Mode (That Isn't Porn) 4 Uses for Browsing in Privacy Mode (That Isn't Porn) Read More , and/or search without signing out, all of your searches are going to be recorded, including the embarrassing ones. That includes typing in all of your symptoms to get cures for your chronic illnesses HEATLH: 2 Easy Guides to Check Your Illness Symptoms Online HEATLH: 2 Easy Guides to Check Your Illness Symptoms Online Read More , and looking for the lyrics for every single Bette Midler song in existence. Soon they would have a complete profile on you, which decides what results you get back when searching.

Google is a great service and can tell you everything you need to know. But whatever pages were shown to you, you need to always adopt the attitude that other, perhaps better, pages are being hidden. To circumvent these restrictions, you need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) The Best VPN Services The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More – and don’t forget to log out as well!

Then consider Gmail. The service is absolutely great, but they scan all of your emails to provide a “customized experience”. How many of you are creeped out by the thought of your very personal and private information being scanned?

Online Advertising

How many times have you visited an e-commerce site such as Amazon The Amazon Shopping Guide The Amazon Shopping Guide This free Consumer's Amazon Shopping Guide outlines everything you need to know to make best use of Amazon and secure the best deals. Read More , and when you surf to another site (not Google), there is an Amazon advertisement showing exactly the same item you just looked at? That bottle of coyote urine is then haunting you as you continue navigating through the Interwebs.

Amazon no-holds barred policy to getting you to part with your money involves placing a cookie in your computer, and this cookie records when and where you were looking for an Amazon product. Then when you visit a site with Amazon Affiliates Monetization Manual: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Making Money Blogging Monetization Manual: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Making Money Blogging Residual income streams from a website have motivated bloggers for years. I will share with you the knowledge and experience I've gained from years of making money blogging. Read More promotional boxes, what you had previously looked at will be sitting there looking at you saying “buy me!”

The solution? Stay logged out of Amazon while making your searches, and do it in incognito mode. Alternatively, dive into your list of cookies and delete the Amazon ones after you’re finished. But to me, that will get quite annoying very quickly.

RFID Chips

RFID How Does RFID Technology Work? [Technology Explained] How Does RFID Technology Work? [Technology Explained] Read More (which stands for radio frequency identification) is increasingly being used in a number of different ways. The first is to maintain highway toll passes and subway passes. So this means that whoever controls the technology will know where you’ve been and where you are now.

RFID also tracks travel luggage, and parcels. So where you’ve been and what you’ve been ordering is recorded. Thirdly, RFID is increasingly being used in supermarkets, so grocery purchases are logged.

Fourth, passports are now embedded with RFID technology, making the passports impossible to forge. But that e-passport (also known as a biometric passport) now has a lot of information about you. So maybe now your travel is also being logged?

But most chilling of them all, RFID chips are now being implanted into human beings. So now you’ve just become a self-made tracking beacon. Congratulations.

Watching TV & Listening To Music

Since Snowden claimed that Amazon “leaks info like a sieve”, it calls into question how secure Amazon Instant Video 3 Useful Things You Can Do With Amazon Video On Demand 3 Useful Things You Can Do With Amazon Video On Demand When most people think of Amazon, they think of shopping. However, the company is starting to appreciate the value of providing free services and products to customers. One example is the ability to download music... Read More  is. Since there are no Jihadi soap-operas on Amazon Prime, and the government couldn’t care less whether or not you are catching the latest Marco Polo TV show, the only thing you need to worry about here is Amazon selling your viewing data to data brokers looking to build a customer profile about you.

The same goes for Netflix and Hulu Hulu Plus vs. iTunes vs. Netflix vs. Amazon Instant Video: Which Is Best? Hulu Plus vs. iTunes vs. Netflix vs. Amazon Instant Video: Which Is Best? Hulu Plus. iTunes. Netflix. Amazon Instant Video. The lifeblood of online cinema and television. The new wave of home media. The providers of endless entertainment in which pants are not necessarily required. They are the... Read More . Their customer data is a goldmine for companies that deal in information.

When it comes to listening to music on iTunes iTunes Sales Are Declining – Is This the End of Paid Music Downloads? iTunes Sales Are Declining – Is This the End of Paid Music Downloads? Spotify is replacing iTunes for many users – will that tend continue? Read More , Spotify Spotify Music Streaming: The Unofficial Guide Spotify Music Streaming: The Unofficial Guide Spotify. Start it up, tell it what song or artist you want to listen to, and you start listening. You can access your playlists anywhere you have an Internet connection. Read More , Pandora 5 Cool Things You Can Do With Pandora Music Radio 5 Cool Things You Can Do With Pandora Music Radio Read More , or any other similar service, it’s the same deal as the TV watching. Although the CIA and MI5 won’t lose any sleep over you rocking to Dolly Parton, customer information is the Holy Grail for data companies.

How to stop it? Use a VPN, and give false details when signing up (except the credit card obviously). So if for example, you are a 25 year old white male living in Texas, sign up instead as a 62 year old black woman living in Toronto. Or do things the old fashioned way – switch on an actual TV set, and listen to the radio. What’s a radio? Google it. I’ll wait for you.

It’s Not About the Tinfoil Hat

Although I come across as a Mr Tinfoil-Hat Area-51-Agent-Mulder type of guy (I’ll pause while you rush to reassure me that I’m not!), it’s definitely true that your personal information is being abused. How else to explain the junk and spam mail? And the RFID chips are a matter of public record. So I am not totally certifiable.

Do you think we are being monitored more and more each day? Are our civil liberties slowly eroding, never to return? Does this mean the terrorists are winning? Let us know in the comments below.

Image Credits: Internet privacy via Shutterstock, Loyalty cards – Nick Webb, Person of Interest – CBS

  1. Jude Dunn
    June 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    I recently ran across a relevant Edward Snowden quote.

    Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

    This encourages me to stop shrugging my shoulders and saying, "What's the use anymore? It's the way things work these days."

    • Mark O'Neill
      June 5, 2015 at 8:12 pm

      Yes, that's good that it encourages you to look again at the issue. If we don't, then our privacy will be gone forever, and we will never get it back again.

  2. Brennen Raimer
    June 5, 2015 at 2:14 am

    cool, so companies know the same things about me that hiring a PI or even just having a 15 minute conversation with me about my likes and dislikes and use the info to target ads I either block or ignore. Wake me up when big data is used for more impactful and nefarious purposes

    • Mark O'Neill
      June 5, 2015 at 8:13 pm

      How impactful or nefarious does it have to be before you wake up? How about your identity being stolen?

    • Christopher HasARightToPrivacy
      June 6, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Unfortunately, it's people like this that will have to be "impacted" before they get upset about it. And I think this view shared by the majority.

      What's scary is that, by the time they feel the pinch, the laws have already been created behind closed doors and the framework built around the acquisition of their data and the destruction of their privacy are just too engrained in the fabric of the government they ignored while they drove their shiny new car while talking on their shiny new iPhone while posting to their friends in the tight little bubble they've been hiding in.

      • Mark O'Neill
        June 7, 2015 at 11:10 am

        I totally agree. It's good to know I am not becoming paranoid. ;-))

    • fcd76218
      June 6, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      @Brennen Reimer:

      " First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Socialist.

      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Jew.

      Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

      When you wake up, it will be too late. :((

  3. Tom Henderson
    June 5, 2015 at 12:20 am

    I don't know if I should write a comment having read this!
    The whole thing is a lot of hassle I think.

    • Mark O'Neill
      June 5, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      What is a lot of hassle?

  4. fcd76218
    June 5, 2015 at 12:14 am

    "But is it just made-up television entertainment, or is it actually real?"
    Truth is stranger than fiction. I suspect it is very real.

    "Loyalty Cards"
    The use of loyalty cards can lead to substantial savings. I an torn between the urge to maintain my privacy and the need to save money. When one is on a fixed income, every penny counts.

    "Do yourself a favor and destroy those loyalty cards now"
    Too late. The horse is already out of the barn. Or rather the data is already collected. While destroying the card(s) may make feel better, it does absolutely nothing to restore your privacy.

    "Kindle/Kobo/Nook/iBooks Highlighting"
    I have always considered e-readers and affectation. Now I have another reason to avoid them.

    "Online Advertising"
    That is what ad blockers are for; to block the ads and to stop the tracking.

    "RFID Chips"
    Give it a few years and implanting newborns with RFID chips will become mandatory. Ostensibly it will be done to assist law enforcement in solving child abduction cases.

    "Use a VPN, and give false details when signing up (except the credit card obviously)."
    Surely you jest! Didn't you just say above that loyalty cards can be used to track us? What is a Loyalty Card but a credit card???? The best advice is NOT to use the service at all.

    Didn't MUO recently have an article about credit cards with chips coming to the US? All the European posters were crowing about the wonders of such cards and how America is finally coming into the 21st century by instituting such cards. All the chips do is make it easier for Big Brother and the corporations to track the card owners.

    "How else to explain the junk and spam mail?"
    If it was only junk and spam mail. A tinfoil hat is no longer sufficient. Nowadays one needs an entire suit of armor.

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