Last night I received a flurry of texts from an unknown number. The sender wanted to know if I was going to a popular Atlanta music venue that night. If I was, he said, he wanted to sell me some pants — “cowboy pants” to be exact. He had picked them out especially for me and offered to alter them to my specifications.
I won’t burden you with the details of what followed, but rest assured that I did not enjoy any live music last night — it was raining cats and dogs here in Georgia — and did not acquire any “cowboy pants.” And I was not very nice to the anonymous texter.
Nevertheless, the incident gave me an insight into something I hadn’t considered … but which is of critical importance to anyone who cares about personal privacy as we head into 2016.
OK, that’s a pun. Blame my father Bob, who passed that horrible trait on to me and my siblings. But that’s exactly what these texts represented … and they came to me courtesy of my Facebook profile.
In addition to my writing at Sovereign Investor Daily and Sovereign Confidential, I’m a musician. The largest single category of my Facebook friends is casual acquaintances I’ve met in the local live-music industry. (It’s important to network in showbiz — more so than most industries.) I’m careful to limit their access to my details, of course — you can do that on Facebook if you know how — so most of them know me purely as a guitarist and singer.
As it turns out, the person texting me was a musician I hadn’t seen in some time, since his band seemed to have disappeared form the local scene. He’s developed a microbusiness that involves scouring thrift stores for things that other musically-inclined people might like and selling them at a markup to people who fit the “profile.”
Since my Facebook page indicates I like some types of country music — the old stuff, like Hank Williams Sr. and Waylon Jennings — he targeted me for a quick sale of some used cowboy pants.
How Small Is Your Micro Niche?
In the light of day, I can see that this guy’s business model is quite clever. He matches goods with customers using inside intelligence, and collects a decent margin. This sale only flopped because he had a new phone number I didn’t recognize, and his language sounded like that of a Chinese hacker … probably the result of a few too many shots before attempting the sale. (Plus, I don’t do cowboy pants.)
This micro-niche market business model is so clever, in fact, that it’s one of the most powerful forces in today’s digital economy. And it’s potentially a huge threat to your privacy.
Unless you take precautions, every time you submit a search term on Google, it’s added to a vast database. You are lumped together with others who submit similar searches. This customized database is then sold to the highest bidder — someone who has something to sell to people who submit specific searches. The marketer then directs specialized ads to the people in the database using the digital “footprint” of their computers, which is part of the database.
In industry parlance, this is known as “lead gen.” It’s been in use for decades, originating in the days of physical-marketing mailings. In and of itself, it’s no big deal. We use it ourselves, albeit in ways designed to protect your privacy.
The difference today is that digital technology allows for extremely narrow niche marketing. Search for types of cancer that have low survival rates, and you’re likely to get ads for funeral services. Type in “need money fast” and you’re guaranteed to get offers for payday loans. Search for something dubious … and the next person who uses your browser is likely to see ads that might shock them.
Protecting Your Digital Privacy
Last week, I wrote about ways to use legal structures to hide your ownership of assets from adversaries. The same principle applies to lead gen on the Internet.
Going online without protection means being categorized based on a digital portrait of you that’s built over time by advertisers and search engines collecting your data — a portrait that data brokers buy and sell, but that you cannot control or even see. This activity is completely unregulated in the U.S.
But you can opt out of it … by hiding your digital footprint, making you useless to digital marketers. By adopting simple tricks that prevent key elements of your computer and web browser’s identity from being transmitted, you can surf to your heart’s content without fear of being added to some unscrupulous marketer’s database.
My special report, Privacy Code 2.0, discusses these tips and tricks in detail. Give them a try. They’re better than a kick in the pants.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor