Almost every task you perform is online and almost every online service you subscribe to is tracking your behavior in detail.  And, the reality is that this is happening offline as well.  How many loyalty cards are you carrying around to get points?  Guess what all those businesses are doing with the data they gather from your loyalty cards? That’s right, they are tracking your every move.

Everyone is freaking out about the NSA tracking US citizens, but their local grocery store, Amazon, and their favorite search engines are likely to have a longer history of “spying” on their behavior.  Beyond these obvious data collection mechanisms, bike computers, fitness monitors, and mobile phones are all publishing location data to systems that are not very well protected.

As a consumer of online and offline services, do you have a choice about being tracked?  Not really.  I dare you to try and be proactively anonymous.  The effort alone, not to mention the discounts you will forfeit, will be significant.  On average, you save about 10% to 20% in loyalty programs and that can really add up. If you really want to be anonymous, you’ll need to pay in cash and that’s not very convenient. You’ll also need to enter all your personal accounting data manually and as Sweet Brown would say: “ain’t nobody got time for that!” Of course, cash will also limit your vendor selection.  Anonymity, or even it’s close approximation, will take practice and skill that you just don’t have and the people tracking you are banking on this fact.

Parents, employers, governments and online vendors all want to “spy” on you so they can “make” you a better son or daughter, student, employee, citizen, or customer.  No matter which role you fall into during a specific transaction, the “spying” is supposed to be for your benefit.

My point is that if you accept the fact that spying or tracking is a given, then instead of complaining about it you can get proactive. This makes it possible to make conscious decisions about who is allowed to “spy” on you. I think consumers should approach this decision by evaluating these criteria:

1) Make sure you are the one getting a tangible benefit. This doesn’t have to be a discount, it could be priority access to information or better status. Whatever it is, it should be meaningful to you – don’t give your data away for nothing.

2) Demand that the data being collected on you is protected in some way.  Some people tracking you are absolutely careless about how they store and protect the data and this is not going to change until consumers collectively demand a change.

One other issue that hasn’t been addressed by most vendors tracking your behavior is ‘identity noise’ or ‘profile pollution’ caused when multiple people using a single login. Most systems assume a one to one relationship between users and logins, or are based on an incorrect assumption that you only shop for yourself. When you start allowing others to make purchases using your login or buy things for your children or friends with very different tastes, stupid recommendations start to appear rendering recommendation engines annoying instead of helpful.

Netflix recently came to terms with the fact that multiple people were using the same Netflix account and instead of fighting it, they introduced the concept of multiple profiles associated with the same login/password.   Now a single account can have up to 5 profiles, so your kid’s unicorn or pony cartoons and your wife’s romance flicks don’t pollute your quality sci-fi recommendations.  Good job Netflix!

Believe it or not, it’s possible (and maybe even likely) for us to become even more traceable. Just wait until Tiles are available and used by the masses.  All I have to say about this is that the people behind Tiles better have badass security people working on the design and implementation or it has the potential to make really bad things happen.  Tiles could get very creepy very fast; for example, they could be hidden in gifts so subsequently something in your proximity can be tracked.  Give a gift that keeps on spying – ugly but extremely possible.

Are you paranoid yet?  I’m not sure you will ever be sufficiently paranoid because so many of these monitoring acts are being sold with major benefits. Deep discounts, rewards, recommendations that you would have not found on your own — all of these things are the positive side of vendors “spying” or tracking your actions.  Marketing and business intelligence systems require more precision about customer behavior so businesses have become very effective in their communications in order to remind you that every action they are taking is “for your own good”.

This battle is being won or lost in the hearts and minds of consumers, not in the bits and bytes of the data vendors are collecting. And all hope for privacy isn’t completely lost. Eventually, it will all works itself out but the issues are more social than technical.  Just remember this: You are a person of interest to someone and that someone will want to track you.  This has been true since the day you were born.