How technology impacts us.

From cars to supermarkets to apps: How much everyone knows about you

Like it or not, practically none of your data is really private anymore. Apparently, public is the new private.

It’s no secret that any data that you voluntarily share on the internet will no longer be private, whether you like it or not, whether you explicitly permit or not. Data privacy, at least data that’s online, is almost a misnomer.

But what about the data you haven’t expressly permitted anyone to share?

What do various business enterprises, data brokers and analytics agencies know about you?

Does your supermarket know if you’re cheating on your partner? Does your car know whether you’re on some subscription drug? Does your favorite app know what political party you’ll likely endorse? Does your cab aggregator know you’ve just been fired?

It looks like yes, they do.

Let’s begin with supermarkets, one of the oldest data capturing bodies.

What supermarkets know about you

Supermarkets have collected and analysed data since long. One of the most popular methods of harnessing customer data was loyalty programs and cards.

But the increase in computing power that Big Data brought suddenly began allowing systems to make sense out of reams and reams of paper full of almost unimaginable magnitude.

Here’s how supermarkets collect data about you and the way it’s used.

  • Sales: What you buy says truckloads about you. Based on the small changes in your sales patterns, supermarkets and big retailers can predict if you’re on a diet (obviously), expecting a baby, divorcing or getting married, switching jobs and a lot, lot more. This info is used to figure out not only how to better lay out products so that you don’t miss them but also to learn what offers you’ll find irresistible.
  • Browsing: Did you stop by the organic cereal rack? The CCTV could pick up subtle cues of how long customers stop where and what do they ultimately end up buying. Smart visual recognition systems will ultimately decipher what combos did you browse before finally making a decision.
  • Loyalty: How likely are you to be swayed a competing retailer’s offer? The change in your buying patterns or quantities could be a signal, but there’s a lot more. For instance, a supermarket will want to convince you that it stores everything you ever need. To do that, it will mine, buy and analyze everything it can learn about you – and that’s the way to build loyalty in the data-driven economy.

In this article, Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explains how data analysis can produce unbelievable results.

For instance, the retail giant Target can figure out if a customer is pregnant, irrespective of whether the customer wishes to disclose this information or not.

What your car knows about you

Much as you’d like to drive a ‘connected’ car, there’s a lot of data the car collects about you.

Not surprisingly, you don’t know what all the car knows about you, where’s the data sent to, how it is processed and used and whether you can do anything about it.

Yes, this data can be very useful for stuff like service reminders, vehicle usage patterns and other things that can make your driving safer and more pleasurable. That said, there’s a good deal of information that seeps out without you know it, including the information you may be reluctant to share otherwise.

The Zebra created a neat infographic about what you car knows about you. Here’s some of the things your car knows about you:

  • Your phones and text messages: Does your car system read out the text messages you receive? It likely stores data from that.
  • Your home – or permanent location: Do you drive to a certain place regularly after work? Your car interprets that location as your home.
  • Your driving skills: Do you brake too often? Are you wearing seatbelts? How about you checking your phone while driving? Do you overspeed often? Depending upon the make and the model of your car, some or all of this – and more – is tracked and stored. Car black boxes, remember?

Your fitness app could be a felon too – unknowingly

When relatively low-tech areas like cars and supermarkets can collect so much data about you, how can you expect smartphone apps to not probe further and practically know you inside out?

In the remote likelihood that you might have forgotten what happened with the fitness app Strava, here’s a quick recap:

Strava, like most other fitness apps, encourages users to record their activities and let the app access its location.


If I live in downtown Bronx and I see someone in my neighborhood has jogged 3 miles today, it rubs my ego the wrong way and makes me run 3.5 miles. Good intentions, basically.

Unfortunately, it led to what is termed a security threat. A number of US military personnel are Strava users too. When they let the app access their locations, they inadvertently disclosed where they themselves were stationed. That also exposed where American military was located currently and also their supply and logistics routes.

Not exactly something you’d like to be proud of, right?

If you’re wondering why military personnel divulged the details, here’s one of the many likely explanations:

Apps like Strava make people pore closely over every single calorie they burnt, every step they walked, every yard they pedaled.

Exercising produces the opioid hormone called endorphin. Such hormones lead to a feeling of euphoria (remember the aha feeling after a round of sit-ups?).

This euphoria may be the culprit in making disciplined military personnel share their locations on Strava.

Privacy Policies of apps

Apps reminds you of privacy policies, right? The ones that must “I agree” before you can use the app.

Well, they could do with a bit of simpler wording. A post rightly observed how Privacy Policies, written in almost unreadable legalese, are nearly impossible to read.

Here’s three things you must understand about Privacy Policy (they stand out like a sore thumb):

  1. Level: The post referred to above found that the average grade level (of language used) of a Privacy Policy is 11.5 grade level. Not exactly simple stuff, if you recall Americans read at an average of 8th grade.
  2. Size: Even at 250 words per minute, you’d need over 17 minutes to just read Facebook’s Privacy Policy. This time doesn’t account for the time you’d need to comprehend whatever is written. Now recall all the sites and all the apps you use and ask yourself if you actually read – and understand – those Privacy Policies. It’s pretty much sure you don’t read them.
  3. Variety: Nearly 6 million apps are estimated to be on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store. Some of these apps are crafted by one and two-person teams, while some others are crafted by large corporates and conglomerates. They bring different levels of commitments and understanding of Privacy Policy.


From a pessimistic point of view, there’s not going to to be any data privacy if you use any online tools. At least not the way it was back in the 20th century.

Data is the new currency with which you pay for the usage of some apps. It doesn’t matter if the app is free (Facebook app) or paid (Procreate or Pocket Casts) – your data will always be at risk.

For instance, it’s clear that Facebook knows a lot more about you than you’d every believe. Not only that, Facebook may be sharing your data with others secretly.

Apparently, there was never a better time to use the old parting words:

Take care.