Last updated by The POOG on September 30, 2020.

In a world that is increasingly digital in its financial and communication structures, corporations are devising ever new ways to extract as much personal information about you that they can

This information can in turn, with the help of principles of psychology, be used to create a profile of you that may be more accurate than the profile that you would build of yourself.

This topic explores how you give personal information to the large corporations, knowingly or unknowingly.

Credit and Debit Cards

Every translocation that you use a card for has the potential for capturing information about your buying habits that a large retailer might use to its advantage. Let’s examine two sales terminals receipts.

The first is from our veterinarian, a small mom and pop type business. Detailed information is not recorded in the transaction. It is likely recorded in a separate billing system that will issue you a separate invoice. The receipt information:

  • Business address
  • Card type and last 4 digits of the card number
  • Date and time
  • Receipt number
  • Purchase total
  • Three lines of numbers that the card issuer requires for the transaction
  • A transaction authorization number for the vendor

The only personal information revealed in this transaction is our card type and number. They do have additional personal information on file including a history of purchases and work done on our pets. We would expect no less. The only followup from the information that they maintain might be a notification that a vaccination or an annual exam is due.

In contrast is the receipt from a transaction at our local Walmart store. This receipt contains the complete details of our purchases.

  • Business address and phone number
  • A line identifying store number,employee number, terminal number
  • A line for each purchase with an abbreviated name, product code, quantity and price
  • Purchase subtotal
  • Applicable taxes
  • Transaction total
  • Card type and last 4 digits of the card number
  • A transaction authorization number for the vendor
  • A transaction reference number for the card issuer
  • A couple of lines of codes of unknown use
  • Date and time

The large chain corporation records a lot of transaction information such as employee number, store number, and terminal number that applies to operations and not the buyer. However, they also record all the information on your purchases. Before you leave the store, head office knows that you just bought 2 packages of red licorice and one box of condoms: brand, size, flavour, and any other distinguishing features.

At this point, however, the information is of limited use to the corporation because the only personal information that they have is your card number which they can’t associate with you personally unless you tell them.

The solution to this problem is in the next subsection.

Corporate Cards

Most credit cards are marketed with a reward feature for the user. The card company charges a transaction fee to the vendor on every credit card transaction. The vendor prices his product to account for this surcharge.

Some vendors with slim margins will charge the purchaser an additional 2% on the transaction if they insist on using their credit card. This 2% goes to the card issuer. Therefore, it can give you back a portion of this as cash or some other benefit such as free movie tickets. The issuer still makes money on the transaction but has secured your loyalty for all future purchases using its card.

So Walmart issues corporate credit cards through MasterCard. When you apply for the card you give Walmart a great deal of personal information. They give you cash back towards in-store purchases. What a deal! You’re hooked because you think you’re getting something free. But the real deal is for Walmart. They can now associate all in-store transactions discussed in the previous subsection with you directly.

Because they know what you buy, they can do directed advertising which is the most effective kind for generating sales. But they could do a lot more.

For example, every food item is marked with its calorie content. They can easily calculate the total number of food calories that you purchased last week. If they know the number of dependants that you have from your credit application, they can estimate your probable body mass index. They may conclude that you are likely overweight and can target you with a sale of plus size clothing. And maybe a promotional diet plan that they devise using products that they sell.

A Walmart credit card is great for Walmart but not for Shoppers Drug Mart for purchases there. What does Shoppers do? They create a reward program. In filling out the application, you give them all the personal information that they want. With it, they can link all your purchases in the store to you.

People are suckers for rewards programs and use them fastidiously, thinking that they are really benefiting. In one sense they are because all customers are paying a small amount for the benefits of card holders. You have to weigh the cost in personal information against the minor benefits the program offers.

Over time, using transaction information linked to you personally, corporations can build up a profile of you using principles of psychology. They can then structure their business transactions so as to optimize getting the most of your paycheck.

A Chance to Win

This subsection does not talk about the plethora of fraud schemes that are used to prey on gullible people through their desire to get something for nothing.

Often at the end of a transaction you will be given the opportunity to go online and fill out a survey or questionnaire for a chance to win something of trivial value to the corporation.

You give up 5-15 minutes of your time plus a lot of personal information, even if it is only in the form of preference or opinion. All this for a ‘chance’. Try taking a ‘chance’ to the bank. Oh I know, it’s a chance to WIN. So are lottery tickets and gambling casinos.

As a closing comment, you can use these opportunities for fun and influence. Some stores in Ontario would ask for your postal code at the checkout. Knowing the structure of postal codes in Canad, I would fabricate one on the spot for some place in the Yukon or North West Territories. Structurally it would be legitimate, but a lookup in a table of assigned codes would probably fail.

You can also answer surveys with answers that lead in the direction that you would like to see the results move. When I used to get phone calls asking if I would answer questions for some survey, I would first ask what they were paying me for my time. It never went further.

Social Media

Digital technology has been advancing steadily. Every year the cost of computing and data storage falls. This means that companies can store ever increasing amounts of personal information at increasingly lower cost. Advances in artificial intelligence and other types of software make it easier to ‘mine’ the data in the corporate database for whatever ends the corporation desires.

I do not use social media. I know people who do and they have placed a large segment of their life on line. You give up basic personal data when you subscribe to the service, but you give up vastly more in your every day usage of the service.

The social media giants have every image, every keystroke that you have used with their platforms. If you use the Google search engine, Google knows every site that you have visited. They say that there are ways to delete some of this information from their systems. If you believe that, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you cheap.

Suppose authorities suspect you of terrorist activity. They approach a social media giant like Google and ask to see the history of what you have been looking for on the internet such as ammonium nitrate. Google may be cooperative and give them the data. If they say “no”, the authorities get a court order and get the data anyway. It just takes a wee bit longer. This has already been done in the US in law enforcement cases.

Have you noticed that the Google appliance always respond to the command “Hey Google”? To do this it has to be always listening. Further, your computer microphone and camera can be accessed remotely by people with the right ‘know how’.

I do use YouTube and are amazed at how finely targeted some of the ads are towards me, even to vendors in my small rural town. I did try to join Facebook, only so I could play a video that a friend sent me posted there.

In that regard, I have a recent amusing anecdote about social media. I have accessed Facebook on occasion from links sent to me by friends. Recently I decide to set up a dummy account to make life easier. Here is Facebook’s response:

Your Account Has Been Disabled

You can’t use Facebook because your account, or activity on it, doesn’t follow our Community Standards.

If you think we disabled your account by mistake, we can take you through a few steps to request a review.

Please note that we have fewer reviewers available right now due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Because of this, we may be unable to review all requests and the way we handle reviews has changed. We’ll guide you through a few steps to request one.

I think they’re trying to protect my privacy.

If you are a very private person, you will not use social media or will create an avatar as an access point. In the next section we will show you how you can use a VPN to hide your location from people that you communicate with.