10 ways Big Brother is already watching you

11th Nov 2009 | 11:00

10 ways Big Brother is already watching you

The privacy horse has bolted. Here's why...

iTunes, Street View, Twitter...

Doors locked? Curtains drawn? Tinfoil hat in place?

Good. Just because the government's abandoned its 'Big Brother database', it doesn't mean they're still not watching you.

The question is who, and why - read on to find out more. It'll make your average CCTV camera look positively benign.

1. Loyalty cards

The next time you flash one at the checkout, just think for a minute about what your shopping habits say about you.

Retailers from Tesco on down can tell what you bought, when you bought it, whether you're a bargain hunter or a high spender, how many kids you have, what kind of car you drive (diesel or petrol) and how often you like to ply your body with alcohol.

In the US, loyalty card data is used to discover whether or not you can afford to pay alimony or even whether you're a potential terrorist - an innocent trip to the gardening section to buy some fertiliser can make sure of that.

2. Phorm

BT's tried and failed twice to introduce this particularly insidious method of monitoring your web surfing habits to fruition, but there's no sign of it going away.

Companies from Apple to Amazon already use web tracking to identify what you're looking at, and to offer you their 'recommendations' on more of the same. It can be convenient, sure, but it also runs the risk of turning you into a 'target market' stereotype, when you think of yourself as anything but.

3. Twitter, Facebook, and so on

You might think you're daily breakfast ritual is of no interest to anyone (in which case, why are you tweeting about it?) but your membership of social network sites often reveals far more about you than you realise.

Aside from the unintended consequences of giving away your date of birth, pet's names, home address and phone number (a gift to identity thieves) it also reveals the company you keep and can tell potential recruiters what you're really like outside the 9-to-5.

Are you sure you really want to post another pic of you lying drunk in a gutter, dressed in your skimpies or sorting out your social life while throwing a sickie? Think again.

4. Google Street View

There you are minding your own business vomiting into a pint glass outside a pub, when along pops the Google camera car, snaps the photo and then displays your distressed state, not just to your friends, but to the whole darn world. Do you really want to be a global laughing stock? Thought not.

5. iTunes

So you downloaded the DRM-free latest by Robbie Whatever and then decided to share it with friends? Doh! Every thing that you buy is tagged with your ID, so Apple or anyone else for that matter can identify you and potentially serve you with a writ when that file pops up on a file-sharing site for everyone else to download.

If that wasn't enough Genius actually scours the contents of your iTunes library to identify your viewing and listening habits and then targets you with more of the same. Customer service to some, downright intrusion to others. Thank goodness you can choose to switch it off.

Oyster Cards, GPS, itemised billing and more

6. Oyster Card

It might be a convenient way to pay for your Tube journeys, but think about what it says about your travelling habits. The Oyster Card can tell where started your journey, where you stopped off and what your final destination was and theoretically how long you spent in each place.

The police can already access the information and use it as evidence of wrong-doing. But what if the information fell into the wrong hands? Stalkers could have a field day.

7. GPS anything

The taxman's pursuing you for some money you owe. You claim you didn't earn any. So why are there photos of you enjoying holidays in the Algarve, the Bahamas and Brighton? How do they know? Blame your willingness to share your sojourns on Photo Bucket, etc and the fact that you left the GPS data, times and dates captured by your phone/camera intact.

Professional drivers and sales reps will already know that GPS data can be used to monitor your whereabouts in real time using readily available software and hardware. Just wait until insurance companies start insisting on having black boxes fitted to cars to identify culprits in accidents.

8. Itemised billing

Leave aside for the moment the prospect that any wrongdoing is likely to see your landline/mobile phone records displayed before the court. But how are you going to justify those calls to your lover/adult chatline/betting shop to your better half, when they can see exactly who you called, on what dates and at which times of day?


Ostensibly used to track the movement of objects from factory to shop, Radio Frequency Identity Tags (RFID) have already been used for more controversial purposes - from identifying potential razor blade thieves in supermarkets to actively tracking customers around shops to find out what they're interested in.

Tesco is already rolling out RFID-enabled loyalty cards to its customers, and data gathered from RFID tag enabled trolleys in one US supermarket is being used to track shoppers around the store and deliver in-aisle offers to shoppers as well as money-off vouchers at the checkout. Sounds great in theory, but do you want to have your every moment tracked for the sake of a few pence off a tin of beans?

10. Your web history

Anyone with a proclivity to visit certain kinds of website already knows how to clear their web history so it's not chanced upon by others, but Apple's Safari web browser attracted the contempt of users earlier this year when it was revealed that its Top Sites website feature kept snaps of the pages users visited even when they'd tried to hide their tracks using Private Browsing mode.

Apple fixed that with the latest version for Mac and PC. Users of other browsers might not be so lucky.


Liked this? Then check out 48 things we hate about tech

Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register

Follow TechRadar on Twitter

privacy technology
Share this Article

Most Popular

Edition: UK
TopView classic version