Who Is Watching You? Nine Industries That Know Your Every Move

Don't kid yourself. Real privacy no longer exists in this country.

We've long had government organizations collecting data that paints a pretty clear picture of what we do with our time. The Internal Revenue Service knows everything about what you earn and any major transactions you make. It can access every bit of information it needs to determine how much money you should be sending on April 15.

The most important gatherer of personal information in the country is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It keeps a database of over 90 million fingerprints, which can be accessed by other law enforcement agencies. It also has an extensive database of DNA, the most specific marker of personal identity. The bureau's ability to collect information expanded following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It now tracks a large portion of mail, cell phone traffic and Internet activity of people it deems suspicious.

Thanks to advances in technology, however, there are also now numerous private enterprises that track and record your every move. Although they don't usually give out this information, there are often worrisome leaks and security breaches where they inadvertently release sensitive information about their customers. Taken together, these industries have data on where you are, who you are communicating with, how you are earning your money, how you are spending that money, as well as the hobbies and interests you are pursuing.

We examined a large number of organizations to find the most intrusive firms and industries. Here they are, ranked by the number of people they track:

1) Credit Rating Agencies
With each firm having files on over 200 million people, the three credit bureaus -- Equifax (EFX), Experian (EXPGY), and TransUnion -- know not only your credit history, but also have the data to project your credit future. The companies collect a history of all credit use by an individual, including payment of bills, mortgages, and credit cards. The agencies also track the frequency with which a person applies for credit. That information is used to determine a person's credit risk through a credit score. These scores are produced using secret algorithms, ensuring that the bureaus know much more about you than you know about them.

2) Cell Phone Service Providers

As cell phone popularity has increased and technology has evolved, cell phone companies have come to possess a wealth of information about their customers. Covering over 90% of the American population, cell phone providers can tell who you call, when you call, how often you call certain people and what you say in your text messages. With GPS, they also now know where you are whenever you have your phone. As smartphones become the equivalent of miniature computers, cellular companies can also track personal behavior, such as use of multimedia and wireless e-commerce transactions.

3) Social Media Companies
In its ascent to Internet superpower, social enterprise Facebook has amassed an enormous amount of user information. Who your friends are, what you like, and what photos you are in are all information that the company has access to. That, however, is not the full extent of it. Facebook also tracks which profiles you view, who you communicate with most often, companies and causes you support, your personal calendar, and a great deal of personal information about your friends and family. Perhaps most surprising, Facebook can access much of the information you may have deleted, including photos and status updates, from their servers.

4) Credit Card Companies
There are currently 610 million credit cards owned by U.S. consumers. In an economy dominated by credit, the amount of power held by credit card companies, such as Visa (V), MasterCard (MA) and American Express (AE), should not be surprising. They know their customers' credit scores, credit histories, what they buy, when they buy, and when they are likely to default on their payments. The interest rates charged for credit fluctuates based on their analysis of individuals' ability to pay back the debts they incur. Some of the information kept by credit card companies can help consumers, however. Algorithms that study buying patterns, for instance, are used to detect fraud.

5) Search Engines
Every search you perform on Google (GOOG) goes into the Internet giant's database, which it uses to keep a profile of your habits and interests. The search engine also keeps track of which links you click on during your search and which advertisers you visit. Google uses your interest profile and search history to place targeted ads in your browser. Perhaps most disturbingly, Google uses its Gmail service to monitor the content of your email in order to place targeted advertising in your email account. Google also keeps records of account and credit card information for everyone who uses their "Checkout" service, tracks which videos people watch on YouTube, where people are planning to visit, and what they plan to do there. Google's location-based map systems also allow the search company to know where people are in real time through the use of smartphones and other GPS-enabled devices.

6) Retail Chains
Walmart (WMT) uses data-mining services to collect and store information for all its customers in a central location. This allows it to determine the purchasing behavior of people who shop in its stores or on its website. It also optimizes inventory distribution by determining which products people are most likely to buy in the future. In August, Walmart began installing Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) in their underwear and jeans, which lets them track items and customers around the store. This means they are able to determine how much time someone who buys a specific pair of pants spends in each aisle. Walmart plans to use this data to reorganize displays and further control inventory. The retail giant also sell this information to thousands of other businesses, who use consumer profiles for advertising and demographic research.

7) Casinos
Casinos like the Wynn Resorts (WYNN) are increasingly using "loyalty cards" to monitor the behavior of their patrons. The Wynn "red" cards are used in place of tokens, and allow the casino to keep track of which machines and tables each gambler visits on a regular basis, the path they take during their visits (using RFID chips), and even how often and how much they are willing to lose before giving up. When a slot machine in Wynn detects a gambler is close to his breaking point, it will issue a small payout in order to keep him spending money.

8) Banks
Large banks, such as Bank of America (BAC), Chase (JPM) and Citibank (C), have access to customer account information, which includes savings, employer payroll deposits, and the time and date of ATM and teller visits. They track transfers made by account holders to third parties. A bank also knows your income, your salary, and your balance, moment-by-moment. Perhaps among the most confidential data a bank keeps is how often people move money in and out of accounts. Banks know how much you save each month, and often exactly how those savings are invested. Banks use this information to assess the risk of giving you a mortgage or loan, and they are legally allowed to use data-mining companies to check your website activity.

9) Life Insurance Companies
About 140 million households currently have life insurance. In order to apply for life insurance, applicants generally must disclose their health history. This includes incidence of heart disease, height, weight, smoking habits, and often includes full records from your doctors. Perhaps more invasive, life insurers seek disclosure of hospitalization for mental illness, use of illegal drugs, and whether or not you have had to file for bankruptcy. Insurance companies use a national prescription database to determine whether or not you have ever been prescribed medication. And certain high-risk professions and hobbies usually have to be disclosed.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Building Credit from Scratch

Start building credit...now.

View Course »

Timing Your Spending

How to pay less by changing when you purchase.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

The writing is all over every wall we got. It is clear to anyone who cares to see. This government which was instituted for the sole purpose of the protection of free individual's rights, has become something that can only be seen as destructive, deceitful, and a cause of pain and suffering for many human beings. Is the right to change from one Christian brand to another all you require to proclaim that the US is still free? Do you have any dignity left? You and I are being manipulated for the most repugnant and tired cause that exists. The game is global domination and you are all slaves. It is on your backs that the state has grown. It is at your expense that their lust for power has been fed. And it sounds like you have given your blessing for this monstrosity to pursue the business of exterminating humans without any regard for the law. That, my fellow Americans, is the same type of fanatical nationalism that turned a nation of Germans into a regime of monsters. If the Human Race is gonna make it, it has to remember how to think. If reason, morality, and cooperation are not used to expand our existence, cunning, brute force, and deception will do to us what we deserve. If common Americans continue to believe that the state has unlimited authority and that politicians will regulate themselves, even though we watch them break the law right in front of our sheepish faces. All will be lost. The pay off for your apathy will be generations who no longer live for themselves. While you sit and watch American Idol and stuff your faces the state has put your children down as collateral on loans it took generations ago. They've been stamped with a number and their blood, sweat, and tears has been promised to the FED. Of course the state monitors our movement. We are being raised like cattle. You wouldn't run a farm without fences and cattle prods, right. Every single American is on the hook for what, $300,000+. We're being looked at with the same callous indifference as one would look at a dairy cow. Please wake up. the ones who control you do so because you allow them to. They're moving all in on a bet that 300,000,000+ Americans will surrender their dignity and accept slavery as the natural default. They think they have you sold on the idea that people are just beasts. That, like a domesticated lap dog we lack the faculties to exist without a master. And by God, it has worked so far. 40,000,000 so called free people take their scraps in the form of free food and we all sit back and clamor for our benevolent masters to control us more. If only they had more power maybe they could have stopped 9/11. If only us stupid people weren't so recklessly free with our finances maybe the housing market wouldn't have exploded. We are behaving like a battered woman that no longer possess' the self worth it takes to leave an abusive partner. We are lied to, spit on, reduced to begging for food stamps because of their policies, and still we endure the abuse. We even subject our children to it. All we can hope for is that they will already be dead inside when they realize it was us who sold them out. It's time to be something more than an instrument of our own destruction. It's time that free people stand to be counted or cower down and get pounded. Or you can crack a beer, take some pills, and get back to watching Opera. The decision is yours.

October 16 2010 at 9:28 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Who researches this info Re:Wynn. A slot machine cannot issue a small payout when a customer is near his quitting point.A slot machines spins are preprogrammed for a set period of time,usually months. These spins cannot be changed to pay someone. The computers "Reels" can only show the preset outcome.It used to be the only person who could accurately guess when a machine was going to payout the big jacpot was the person who programmed the chip.Nowadays the computer chips are randomly set by computers so no one knows.

September 28 2010 at 10:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

So if they Bug my credit card, my computer, my searches and follow me around on my GPS... Then why is it a crime for me to do the same to them? Freedom my ass!

September 27 2010 at 10:25 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

As bad as it all seems to be, we still won't go to bed tonight fearing an uprising that will threaten us and our family. I can still vote without having to worry about having my fingers cut off. I actually went to church and decided to attend another denomination. And I feel pretty knowing that most any guy serving in Iraq or Afghanistan could "Kick my Butt" on my best day. In a morbid sort of way, I pity the "Insurgents" ("Pseudo-Muslims") I choose to call them. They're being systematically hunted down like the "Insects" they are and then "exterminated" by the greatest military in this galaxy. Sleep tight!Ni-nite!

September 26 2010 at 9:10 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to daviswwhdavis's comment

@daviswwhdavis Perhaps you're being a bit naive. Today there is no uprising here in the US, and today you, as a conservative, can still vote and go to the church of your choice. But don't assume the trend will continue indefinitely. Afterall, we are being watched by the government for a reason. I am taking a risk by making this statement, after all we are told in this article that what we say online may be monitored. I do, however, refuse to live my life as someone who never speaks up for myself and my fellow countrymen. I'm warning others to do what they can for their country to stop this intrusion into our lives. The best thing I can think of right now to do is to vote, and ask others to vote, for conservative candidates who support the Consitution and our freedoms. Then perhaps they could work with the Congress, Senate, etc. to get our privacy back. krissy

October 05 2010 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The article forgot to add, the MIB (Mass. Insurance Board)which receives every bit of information on you regarding using any kind of insurance and making a claim. This is possible because of the waiver you MUST sign that gives the treating facility, be it doctor, hospital or ANYWHERE you receive treatment using your health incurance card. The insurance company will not pay your claim uless they are given ALL of the medical information on you. It is all sent to the Insurance Board in Mass. and kept there forever. They also get information if you claim against your house or car insurance. They have your credit and driving records. They do not want you to know that they exisit, and they do not want to give you the information. They receive information from ALL insurance companies, and it is complied into one neat package under your name and Social security number. They were set up by, and exisist for, the insurance companies to check on your record of claims against any type of insurance. It is how they would know that you are lying on an application, and how they know who the people are that make frequent claims against their home owner or car insurance. I would have never known about this place if I hand not taken courses to get a Health and Life insurance license. They try to stay under the radar. I tried to get my records for one year. Although people are entitled to the information, they will give you the run around until you just stop asking for it. They did it to me for ONE year. I never was able to get my own information from them.

September 25 2010 at 4:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I am not surprised that the government spies on us, nor am i surprised that big business does the same thing. It is what a so called free society allows people to do....freedom eventually allows itself to be destroyed by its very nature. I once had a friend who became angry at me. So he bought a spy program from a company advertising on his computer. He used that program to break into my computer and steal my email, my other correspondence, anything he wanted.Later he broke into my cell phone and was able to listen to my conversations. At the heighth of his anger he hired a satelite to track my comings and goings. Soooooooo, you see being free comes with all the trappings of being enslaved. We fought a valuant WWII to save the world from mass destruction of people, ideas, and ways of living. We saved the planet, so to speak. Only to come home to our own government turning on us, and allowing others the opportunity to do the same. FREEDOM TAKES RESPONSIBILITY, GOOD CHARACHTER, AND THE WILLINGNESS TO ALLOW OTHERS TO THINK AND ACT DIFFERENTLY. IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT. I THINK SO. DAMN, I DO LOVE MY COUNTRY. FOR SURE.

September 25 2010 at 2:48 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply


September 25 2010 at 2:07 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

If the Wynn slot machine gives you a payout when it calculates you are at your breaking point then that is a blatant violation of Nevada's gambling laws and the Wynn's gambling license should be revoked.

September 25 2010 at 4:06 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wojewnik's comment

See my post 5 comments up

September 28 2010 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So our United States with its Constitution is really no better than Communism at its worst. Why are we not surprised??? I smile every time someone says that they have privacy. I do not even have privacy from my next door neighbors, let alone my Cell, land line, cable TV or my Computer. Why anyone would find my no privacy interesting I would never understand. I have never found someone elses live interesting unless it involves me. I have always said SMALL TOWN, SMALL MINDS, but I guess it should be BIG ANYTHING, BIG INTRUSION. LOL

September 25 2010 at 3:47 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

To: dusty754 ..........THANK YOU, I couldn't have said it better!!!

September 25 2010 at 1:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply