It seems the only thing growing faster than Google's control of online searches is their database which they hope will eventually hold information on every internet user in the world. Google boasts databases big enough to permanently save the countless number of searches internet users make each and every day. The information Google stores on its users is great enough to create a virtual identity equipped with information ranging from favorite flavors of ice cream to sexual fantasies. And who can forget Google's infamous eye in the sky, also known as Google maps. How scary of a thought is this: a group of people monitoring servers in California know everything you did yesterday, your major plans for the rest of the week, and where you live. To top it off, Google offers services such as GMail that can store even more information about your personal life. Unfortunately, however, that isn't the worst of Googles privacy offenses.
Google's most prominent form of data assimilation lies in their cookies. Where most websites set cookies to expire in a few days (or in rare cases a few months) Google configures their cookies to expire in 30 years. Google claims this gestation period is to gather information to provide users with more accurate search results and protect Google from denial of service attacks and other cyber-crimes, but the simple truth is Google is gathering your information and has the storage space to create a very detailed picture of your online activity.
Facebook, as many of you know, has unrestricted access to everything you do related to its site. The amount of information Facebook has on you and its other members is appalling. In signing up for Facebook -- and filling out your profile -- you've essentially completed the world's most widespread survey. With over 400 million active users, the Facebook Like and Facebook Share widgets on seemingly every website you browse, it's no wonder some experts speculate the company's worth at over $11 billion. Twitter, by comparison, is speculated to only be worth a paltry $1 billion. That disparity has much to do with the amount of information Facebook holds concerning its users and their online activities and browsing habits.
America Online's privacy intrusion efforts are so aggressive and offensive, that the only explanation seems to be that AOL thought its clientele was so naïve they would never catch on to the company's privacy invasions. In August of 2006, America Online released web search data from more than 650,000 users without prior consent. A handful of users involved have since then filed a lawsuit against America Online citing that the released data contained information some users considered too private to ever make it beyond the comforts of their own home.
To attract new customers, America Online is currently using an anti-spyware software campaign. What America Online fails to tell you is that packaged within portions of their software (including AIM and various online games) lies WildTangent, an application that reports personal information directly to various databases. America Online went so far as fail to tell users WildTangent was being installed on their machines in the End User License Agreement, until mounting complaints finally forced their hand.
The world's most popular website Yahoo! is also one of the world's biggest data aggregators. The plethora of services Yahoo! offers provides the ideal data collection scheme. The beauty of the system is, Yahoo! doesn't have to go through any extraordinary means to obtain your personal information; instead, users voluntarily give Yahoo! their information every time they use a Yahoo! product, perform a search, enter a Yahoo! promotion or sweepstakes, or purchase products through Yahoo!. Eventually, Yahoo! has acquired enough of your personal data to create for each user an individualized profile which they use to target advertisements that are most likely to appeal to you.
It will come as little surprise to many that Microsoft products are among the world's elite when it comes to privacy invasion. Microsoft is constantly developing new ways to aggregate customer data for the ostensible purpose of creating a "smoother ride" for the user. Practically speaking, however, many Microsoft products and features are designed simply to provide a convenient way for the program to report back to Microsoft databases what type of activities you regularly engage in on your computer. In effect, the Windows operating system works like a two-way mirror: the customer has little idea that Microsoft is literally watching every move he makes.
Perhaps the most insidious method of privacy invasion Microsoft employs is the "Windows Live ID" (formerly Microsoft .NET Passport). The Windows Live ID collects data from the majority of Microsoft networks including MSN, Hotmail, and Xbox Live, and stores them in a central database. This data includes email addresses, generic personal information (name, age, etc), your favorites (books, video games, gadgets, etc), address books and contact lists (so your friends can be exploited too!), and much more. Microsoft then takes this data and generates ads targeted specifically to you.
It should come as no surprise that the world's biggest online store has a lot of private information pass through its servers on a daily basis. Amazon.com happens to have receipts on more than 59 million active customers, which are used by the company to track the purchases that individual customers make.
"As we continue to develop our business, we might sell or buy stores, subsidiaries, or business units. In such transactions, customer information generally is one of the transferred business assets."
Yes, you read that correctly, Amazon is in the business of selling private consumer data. And for that move, they earn the #7 spot in our ranking.
ChoicePoint, a marketing conglomerate, wins our coveted George Orwell award as the company most likely to be watching you right now; i.e., Big Brother. ChoicePoint maintains more than 17 billion records on 220 million people with topics ranging from social security numbers to DNA samples. The majority of ChoicePoint's information is sold to the highest bidder which more often than not happens to be a representative of the United States government, a leading American company, or a Nigerian fraud group. In addition to their willingness to sell private information to questionable sources, another factor that makes ChoicePoint the biggest privacy threat is the company's failure to provide a high level of data security.
In 2005 ChoicePoint announced that approximately 160,000 users in their database had various forms of sensitive information compromised. This breach in security resulted in more than 750 cases of full blown identify theft.
In what is perhaps the boldest (and most brainless) information scam of all time, Response Unlimited, a large marketing firm, received authorization to sell a list of Terri Schiavo's financial contributors to other companies as sales leads. The story broke on Response Unlimited's company wide privacy mining operation only after it was revealed that most of the donors were constantly getting loads of spam and telemarketing calls.
Response Unlimited's shameless consumer data mining scheme earns them the number 10 spot on this countdown.
LexisNexis is a company as notorious for its inability to secure the private information it has as it is for its privacy invasions. LexisNexis maintains the LexisNexis database, which includes millions of records which include mailing addresses of almost every person in the United States. In July of 2005, the LexisNexis security system was compromised resulting in more than 300,000 records being stolen by computer hackers. This security breach ranks among the top personal data heists of all time. Luckily, the LexisNexis hackers were identified as a few teenage kids looking to have some fun, but it demonstrated how inept their security measures are at protecting one of the largest caches of private data in the world.
Accenture is on this list for their growing reputation in expanding digital dossiers and accepting a $10 billion dollar contract with the United States Department of Homeland Security to build a surveillance system that tracks visitors, to, from, and within the United States. The system calls for extensive fingerprints and photographs of all visa wavier travelers and non-naturalized U.S. residents. The system is also experimenting in futuristic technologies such as biometrics via iris scanning and facial recognition. So not only does Accenture know your credit history and previous court dates (even if only jury duty), they also know what you look like.
Bonus - Acxiom
Dubbed as the premiere source of addresses and telephone numbers for telemarketers and mass mailers, Acxiom has a reputation of collecting data better than anyone else. Acxiom boasts records on millions of Americans including drug test and criminal histories, education data, and the popular "Suspected Terrorist Watchlist" available at a premium price. The company claims this data is to help employers weed out untruthful applicants and illegal employees, but often the information is used to create very targeted ads by advertisers.
This list of the worst ten copmanies for privacy invasion and data mining is intended to highlight some of the worst actors among big business. While this exposure on its own cannot make a big difference in causing companies to change their policy, by having citizens and internet users who are more aware and concerned about the threats posed by data mining, real change can actually occur. So if this article leaves you with anything, I encourage you to become more educated about the privacy policies of the companies you do business with, and consider making consumer decisions on the basis of what you learn.
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