Yes You Are being Spied On, But It’s not the Government we Should look at

Yes You Are being Spied On, But It’s not the Government we Should look at

4th July 2013

It’s the fourth of July today. Independence Day in the US. A day on which they celebrate the Declaration of Independence, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. It was on July 4th 1776 The United States of America called themselves ‘free’. Free of the English government.

237 years later they are still independent but the world is different. The US is one of the leading countries and being independent is about more than getting away from the British government. These days it is about people wanting to be independent themselves, from countries and governments, from each other.

There has been a lot of debate recently about the government tracking citizens, finding out what they do and where they are. Many people believe this is an invasion of privacy and the government should not do this. It’s going to far they say. Stop looking at what we do!

There is a couple of things about this discussion which strike me and which I’d like to discuss with you. From what we are talking about to the impact on marketers and our privacy.

Is this new? No it’s not

time-nixonFirst of all, there is nothing new about the things that are going on except for the fact that it’s been done in such an advanced way and with the latest technology and thus on such a mass scale.

Let’s get something clear: governments, the maffia, politicians, terrorists and even private businesses, all have been spying on others since the beginning of time. This is as old as human kind is.

Of course most Americans will remember the Watergate scandal but even before that people were spied upon, hell what do you think ‘made’ James Bond? If you go through history there are tons of examples of spying. You can go back to World Wars, look at the Communism in the last century, back to the Roman Era and beyond to find examples of how people were spied up on. And not ‘just’ the “celebrities” or politicians: anyone who mattered.

It really is nothing new and still people seem surprised even that is happening. It is happening all over the world, and has been so for ages.

Of course just the simple fact that the government is doing this could be something you could be opposed to. Whether that’s right or wrong is a political discussion I don’t want to get into here. But but the fact that so many people are surprised that this is happening surprises me.

Are they really spying on you and me?

What also strikes me is that there are people out there who tend to believe that the government is spying on them specifically. And the media are happily playing that card: As if Barack Obama himself is reading your e-mails. He’s not of course and chances are neither are any other government people. Unless of course you give them reason to.

What the government is doing is tracking behaviour which might indicate something is up. And for this they are not specifically reading your e-mails but they are looking for signals, around the web but also offline, which might show someone has something ‘bad’ up their sleeves.

Then if you give them a reason to, yes they will read your e-mail. But I doubt any of us reading this article actually will give them a reason to.

It is actually a similar reaction to what happened a couple of years ago when people start to understand that Google was placing ads next to Gmail e-mails based on the texts which were in the e-mail. Some believed Googlers were actually reading the e-mails to decide which ad should go next to it. This of course also is not true, it’s all done algorithmically. The same goes for how the government is filtering what they should and should not be looking at at the moment.

Why are we looking at the government?

I think this strikes me the most. People also tend to look in the wrong direction when it comes to their own information.

giving-phone-number-dataI don’t believe many people realise how much they are ‘volunteering’ to governments and businesses to spy on them. We are openly and publicly giving away our data and all the things we do and like, all the friends we have, all the people we love and hate, to mostly commercial businesses.

I’ve mentioned Gmail earlier which is a free product you can use in exchange for which you give Google data. The same goes for Facebook or Twitter or any other free product on the web. We are allowing them to have a look into our (private) lives more closely than any government employee will ever get to do.

When marketers are talking about ‘big data’ companies like Google, Facebook an Amazon are the ones that have real big data, and are using it. Big time. These are the real ‘spies’ and these are not just looking at potential terrorists, these are looking at all of us.


The latest addition to the group of companies tracking our behaviour online is Twitter. They this week announced they will be personalising ads. Based on… our behaviour online. No, not just the tweets, our actual behaviour, on the web. For US users this will be automatically be turned on, so you have to opt out of being spied upon.


Let’s just take a few things out of the privacy policy of Twitter to see what they are doing:

“Log Data: Our servers automatically record information (“Log Data”) created by your use of the Services. Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type, operating system, the referring web page, pages visited, location, your mobile carrier, device and application IDs, search terms, and cookie information.”

Ok, not too bad actually. It makes sense so far. But this is just the information we give them by tweeting. There is more:

“We receive Log Data when you interact with our Services… or visit a third-party website that includes a Twitter button or widget.”


“We may tailor content for you based on your visits to third-party websites that integrate Twitter buttons or widgets.”

Wait a second, “a third-party website that includes a Twitter button or widget”. That is basically every website on the web at the moment. There are few who haven’t integrated Twitter buttons on their site yet. Which means that when you are logged into Twitter in the background (or even without if cookies are involved) every website you visit is being logged by Twitter.

Not just Twitter

Facebook-gathering-data-moviesAnd this is not just Twitter. Facebook does exactly the same with their like button. And they are gathering data from us in every possible way. I would even say they are asking for it and we are simply handing over that data. Without even thinking about it. We are telling them what movies we like, the food we eat, the products we buy. If they ask us if we know specific people we will tell them and they urge us to be part of groups our friends are in to make sure we give some more information about us.

Graph Search

I wrote about this when Facebook just launched their Graph Search functionality: the potential privacy issues there are huge. People don’t realise what they are telling Facebook. And actually we should now maybe say: it is a spies’ heaven if they want to spy on citizens. As with the other data though: we are simply giving them the data.

You can have loads of fun with it. And for a marketer it can be very useful. I did some research on State of Search followers. It is relatively simple to figure out what the interests of the State of Search readers are (did you know Traveling, Photography, Music, Star Wars and Grooveshark top the list?). I could even find out what companies they work for and in some cases what role they are in and what jobs they admire (they like Firefighters, Stand-up Comedians and bartender roles for example).

But it can get much more fun. A search for “Photos liked by people who like State Of Search” shows me what type of pictures people like and I could even get to the original poster of a picture and with a simple refined search (suggested to me by Facebook by the way) I got to “People in photos liked by people who like State Of Search”, which I then could filter down to gender, relationship and even employer.

And this could potentially get creepy. Within a few clicks I found a list of 4 people “who are in an open relationship and are women in photos liked by people who like State Of Search”. Do I need to go on?

Ok, just one step, because this is just the tip of the iceberg:

“People who work for NSA and like Edward Snowden”


I think I would keep an eye on them actually ;-).


Ah Google+. Google’s social network. How much fun are we as online marketers having with that. It’s a great topic to make fun off. Telling everybody how big of a failure it is, because ‘nobody is there except for online marketers and photographers’. I even get some people thinking I’m crazy because I look at Google+ differently and see a success. A success for Google that is. I think people should not ignore Google+ at all, especially marketers and SEOs shouldn’t. Because it’s a direction in which they are heading which will in the end change the game.

I’ve explained before that Google+ is not intended to be a social network like Facebook. Google+ is a layer which exists underneath all Google products and mainly serves as database. A huge one. It connects everything we do together. And we should not ignore that. Marketers shouldn’t because there is a direction Google is heading in and as a marketer you need to know Google is gathering that data to amongst others to present people personalised content and you need to be able to act on that. But also as a user we should realise that.

Just like Twitter and Facebook are doing, Google is gathering information on the web. It is collecting data via the Google+ buttons, via analytics, via search and every other way they can. Just to build up the profile. And don’t forget the data which comes from Android. It tracks exactly where we are and what we do. Ever thought about why the navigation on Android is free?

And they don’t stop there. Google buys databases. Databases filled with data of our offline behaviour. Things we buy in stores, hotels we pay with our creditcards and much much more. All data gathered by other companies who have access to what we do. Those are the real companies who are ‘spying on us’.

And that’s just Google, Facebook and Twitter. But there are many more, travel companies and websites, Amazon, basically all sites that offer memberships or where you can login (remember you can login using Facebook on for example TripAdvisor, where does that data go?).

What it’s telling us

Now this is all interesting off course, but let’s get back to the issue here: the people who worry about the government ‘spying’ on them. As said, I think these people are looking in the wrong direction.

What Google, Facebook and Twitter are showing us is that we are presenting others with our data. And that we are almost allowing them to spy on us. Yet that doesn’t seem to bother us at all. Maybe, because we don’t know, but maybe also because we get something in return: free stuff (Facebook, Google) and relevant information.

We care about the stuff the government is doing, but we accept that our entire lives are just being spread around the web and are being recorded offline through our discount cards and credit cards. We happily give away the data, just don’t let the government look at it ok?

The marketers’ and SEO’s job

This off course affects the marketers job immensely. For marketers things will get a lot more interesting. We will be able to target much more specific and will have huge amounts of data accessible to us to do our jobs as good as we can.

It means we have to think different. We will have to learn to understand big data and learn to work with it. Learn what to automate and what not. A marketers job will never be the same again.

This also means SEO’s have to face the music. They will have to understand that ‘just SEO’ isn’t going to do it anymore. It will not be about whether or not a Google+ Update ranks or if a “+1” will help your result rank better. It will be about getting the right content to the right person at the right time.

At the moment the focus in the SEO still lies too much on ‘old fashioned rankings‘ and on getting things like authorship implemented. SEO’s then hope for Authorrank to start working, which as Gianluca pointed out before, doesn’t make sense.

In a session I had at A4U Expo this week Matt Roberts from Linkdex pointed out something which many don’t realise: authorship it is not about getting your face in the search result, it’s about the network behind it. About who is connected to who, about who is influential. It is about: data.

This means a change of thinking. Away from tactics an on to strategy. Stop looking at what influences rankings and start looking at the bigger picture: use the data to figure out what people want and get the content to them at the right time. Being relevant will be very important.

I know that many SEO’s don’t believe in this direction. They still want to focus on rankings, which in the short term will be alright. Rankings will be there for a while. For the long term however you need to broaden your horizon.

A challenge, but I believe an interesting one.

Back to the data gathering: Good or bad?

So back to the data we are giving away and which is gathered by data companies. How should we feel about this?

Now is this all good or bad? If you just look at what’s being gathered, the privacy we thought we had is over. And probably based on all of this, we should be scared. Because companies are running away with our data. Heck, we are giving them the data! As with many things however there are good things and bad things to it.

The good things

The good things coming from all of this is that we will be getting more and more relevant information. We will be getting what we (think) we want to have. We will not be seeing irrelevant stuff anymore. Spamming will become harder (not impossible) and we won’t be bombarded with irrelevant ads all the time. In general these things will make life easier.

The bad things

The bad things are obvious off course. We don’t have private lives anymore. What we do, who we like, it’s out there. And not because the government is spying on us, but because we are giving our data away. The bad thing I think is that people don’t realise this.

Now what?

I don’t think we should (or for that matter can) stop what is going on. The data will be gathered one way or another and entities like Facebook and Google are here to stay, in one form or another. But we should realise that what we do has impact and is recorded. Maybe even change our behaviour.

Could things be better if things are more ‘open’? Or will that make things worse? Barry Adams last week made a strong case for the focus on privacy. I agree the focus should be there, but the question ‘how’ is not answered yet. How to handle the privacy? Ban Google? Ban Facebook? That’s a route which is practically impossible. Make stronger rules? Rules usually don’t help in the long run.

I think it might be in a different direction: ourselves. To get back to why this all started: people being afraid of the government tracking what they do. Maybe it’s not the government we should be scared of, maybe not even the businesses like Google or Facebook, but maybe we should be scared of ourselves. It seems we want our lives to be out there. Or we don’t realise…


Written By
Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.
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