Competitive Intelligence and Online Privacy, NSA Leaks from Edward Snowden

In preparation for attending the Privacy Identify Innovation conference here in Seattle with peers, my recent conversations have been around the  kind of data that Edward Snowden and related NSA leaks stirred up.


These conversations live in another dimension almost as spooky as the Twilight Zone.

While the NSA is in the center of this issue, we should think about the thousands of companies that have access to our personal information.

Through these companies there are an untold number of individuals who have access to our digital homes without our knowledge. Some of them knowingly allow access (while others do it accidentally.)

We have dropped the ball: not only as companies and organizations in the U.S., but as a global society we have absolutely failed to understand how the Internet of everything relates to metro, regional, ethical, and moral audiences around the world.

If this was my house it would  be leaving my front door unlocked and leaving it unattended. When we have a digital version of our home we need to give a little bit of thought about the benefits and risks associated to it.

  • We have to keep in mind that data isn’t limited to live where it is created.
  • It isn’t limited to a time or place.
  • It is a universe of information that covers both historical and future possibilities.
  • Our digital neighborhood isn’t local- it is global.

We need to ask questions about who may visit our home.

What do they know about me?

This is a big question. 

You need to have a grasp of the questions below before you can really begin to identify what they know about you.

If someone is interested in you they have decided you are worth a certain amount of effort.

The reality of the situation is that there are a lot of rocks to kick over and look under.

When competitive intelligence professionals like myself get involved there is a level of strategic and investigative research that takes place using all sorts of systems that help look under rocks quickly.

Examining what is under each rock cost a little bit of money and effort. If I have intent and reason to turn over thousands of rocks I will find out more about you than being lazy and turning over just one.

The speed at which this investigation can take place depends on the tools and the likelihood that the research effort will be rewarded with knowledge.

Thinking about who really has access to the data

When I turn on the typical desktop computer there are dozens of companies involved with the security of the data.

A basic example of typical computer privacy points:

  • The Brand/Creator of the PC
  • CPU Manufacturer
  • RAM Memory Manufacturer
  • BIOS programmer
  • Video Card
  • Wireless Processor
  • High Speed Modem
  • Network Router


  • Adobe Flash
  • Java
  • Microsoft Office
  • Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer (with several dozen plugins)
  • Internet is supplied by Comcast (Comcast router boxes, relay junctions, data stores, etc)

Web Services

  • Banking
  • Utility Payments
  • Mobile Services
  • Entertainment (Netflix, etc)
  • Social Networks (Facebook, Linkedin, etc)
  • Communication tools (email, digital phone, etc)

Securing the basic elements above almost requires a degree in rocket science.

Yet as a society of web enabled users we’ve thrown caution to the wind and have opted-in to all sorts of things like social networks and freemium web services.

Multiply the basic example above for laptops, tablets, mobile phones, etc.

Facebook is an amazing example of our blunder.

Over a billion people have joined the site and have given access to our profiles, social networks, and personal communications.

In addition to what we share on, Facebook scripts and widgets run on tens of millions of sites.

These scripts cover a range of login, recommendation, analytics, and sharing functions.

If you were to figure out the combined data collection of Facebook across all of these sites you’d have trillions of interactions.

But we also have Google who has access to sites with

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Webmaster
  • Google Adsense
  • Google Content Networks
  • Google Gmail
  • Google Docs

When you overlap just the properties and data collection points of Google and Facebook you end up with information on almost the entire web using population. 

The NSA may have access to that data… but who else?

While the NSA may have access, I wouldn’t typically focus on whether the NSA has it.

You should be focusing on people and organizations that seek you harm (if the NSA has reason to cause you harm, then worry about the NSA.)

Google and Facebook don’t necessarily want to harm us, but they do want to make a few dollars in profit.

The core item to think about is that there are thousands of businesses in the industry of collecting and monetizing our data or using it for harmful or monetary purposes. These include data brokers, financial organizations, major employers, and big retail brands. They also include criminal and military organizations.

The information they are collecting is specifically important to the intent of why they are collecting it.

You can help figure out where you sit in the big picture as both an individual and as a business by running through a series of questions.

What are the problems?

Data will always be created and collected by some process.

The core problem comes from the question of Good vs Evil?

Good uses:

  • Trying to use the data to improve the education system of a local town.
  • Supporting entrepreneurs to create green, sustainable business.
  • Helping third would countries raise the standard living.

Bad Uses:

  • Identifying an individual’s commute time to work so robbers know when the house is empty.
  • Discriminating against employees based on what was perceived as private.
  • Disabling a city utility by crashing the utility grid.

Why are they collecting data?

Most organizations use online data to define and segment millions of users into a size they can interact with.

They want to strategically locate communities and individuals who matter to them.

This usually revolves around simple items such as:

  • How many interactions?
  • How many relationships?
  • How many transactions?
  • How many habits?

 Who is using it?

The answer to who is using it creates a number of tangents to think about:

  • Where are they?
  • How do they store it?
  • Do they sell it?
  • Do they abuse it?
  • Do they learn from it?
  • Where do they have interests?

What laws am I dealing with?

As you answer the above questions about you begin to identify the legal structures of where your data lives.

In the U.S. we have some very specific ideas about privacy and freedom of speech. These same ideas may not apply around the globe.

  • Where does all that data live?
  • Who owns the lines it moves across?
  • What jurisdictions apply to the servers?
  • What companies have access?
  • What employees have access?
  • What criminals have access?

What ethics am I dealing with?

With some of the legal concepts detailed we can begin to think about ethical and moral uses of the data.

Some cultures and countries have wildly different ethical and moral concepts.

  • Do they want to hurt/help me?
  • Do they want to hurt/help my family/friends?
  • Do they want to hurt/help my company?
  • Do they want to hurt/help my country?

What can I do about it?

The key to protection is understanding.

#1 – write down a list of things that are most important to you.

#2 – write down a list of people who want to hurt you.

#3- ask an expert to detail ways #1 and #2 interact.

#4- Create a plan for protecting the things most important to you can be used by people wanting to hurt you.

#5- Apply a scenario to two or three organizations you don’t like and ask yourself what you can do to them.

These basic steps will wildly vary in results depending on if  individual and group perspective.

By understanding value vs risk you can allocate where your effort will produce the most protection.


What is Social Business Intelligence?

Before I can answer the question of “what is social business intelligence?“, we need to think about some of the ramifications of what I’m talking about at an individual level.

The reality of the digital world is that a majority of our actions and relationships have dual lives.

We create information we can comprehend and consider ourselves full participants in, while we also create information that is completely outside of our normal realm of process. Both of these types of information are archived online… all of these digital footprints overlap from sources we actively know about, the sources we subconsciously consider and disregard, and the hundreds of sources we technically never knew about.

The pervasiveness of this digital archive is fairly shocking. A good portion of our society has willingly and unknowingly abandoned many traditional concepts of personal privacy in favor of having easy access to information and being socially connected. Read more

Online Privacy, Reputation and Identity

The topic of online privacy and how you are represented by digital information has been accelerating over the past few years. In the past six months we have seen a sudden increase in speed as companies on all sides struggle to compete for consumer dollars.

This can be seen in a variety of instances, but mainly in the amount of news coverage it is receiving. Knowing how to identify individuals through online data footprints and having the insight into how they behaviorally act on social networking sites begins looking more and more like Pandora’s Box. You can read about my previous thoughts on reputation management and online privacy or delve into the facts of how online background checks are mixtures of digital espionage and public information.

The sad part of this story is that this business has been around for years… and there are many more invasive technologies being created and utilized by digital companies than you can shake a stick at.

The recent investigative report by the Wall Street Journal on “What They Know” Read more

Background Checks, Pandoras Box, digital espionage, or public info?

What if you could take anyone you know and ask a question about them, without them knowing it? The digital world has created a virtual version of Pandora’s box, a secret treasure trove of information and insight that only a few people know how to use. If you had keys to this vault of information, if someone gave you a map to nearly infinite knowledge… would you use it?

Probably not.

In reality, every person who lives in the modern world has access to such information. The simple fact is that many of us are completely overwhelmed by the amount of information we need to sift through… having few or non-existent methods for qualifying how we spend our time sifting through it.

It is a simple fact that hundreds of millions of people use web-enabled cell phones, and that 3G / 4G units are quickly covering the world (on June 24th, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs stated the worldwide 3G users surpassed one billion.)

Consider your network.

Imagine how much information exists for you online, created both by you, your family, your friends, your co-workers, your competitors, and everything that has been done in the past.

Now think about the people you care about: your family and friends. Multiple the information that you have online by the number of people you consider “close to you”

Now ask about Pandora’s Box.

If Pandora’s Box (the web) could answer these questions… would you want to know? is it your right to know?

  • Where was my spouse last Saturday night?
  • How many parties did my employee attend in 2010?
  • Is my new business partner in any risky groups?
  • What did this public employee do for fun yesterday?

These are all incredibly complex questions that could be rooted in entirely reasonable viewpoints… but they all define the “double edged sword” of information freedom and personal privacy. We know more about each other than we ever did… and that information is being used by our our family, our friends, the public, and our enemies.

In a perfect world many of us probably wouldn’t complain too much about our family and friends using Pandora’s box, but seeing as the profit of our personal information is being driven by the public and by our enemies… Pandora’s box has been arguably flung open by the loving term “social media.”

What do you think of Pandora’s Box?

READ MORE: Background Checks Pt II – Discrimination, privacy, accuracy and compliance.

Online Testimonials and Referrals

Social media networking is transforming how professionals connect online. A decade ago, businesses needed to form entirely new relationships with one another. It started with an outreach campaign- such as a simple magazine advertisement or shaking a hand at a cocktail party. Over time and multiple interactions, a relationship was created. In the social media world, relationships jump through hurdles at an amazing pace… sometimes within hours or even minutes.

One of the main driving forces behind this phenomena is social networking being multiplied by a technology revolution. When you visit this site or many of the other sites I write on, you have the opportunity to do something that is amazingly interesting: you can interact with my readers. Just like at a cocktail party, you can listen to the main speaker (me) or choose to take the discussion down other avenues with an audience member. An example of this technology in action is on the sidebar at, the and widgets which show community members who have visited my site.

With that in mind, I am going to state the true power of what I write really isn’t within the words of this article. It is actually in the fact that what I write is spread across hundreds of different sites and social networks.

What does that mean?

If you only come here and don’t know how to investigate the internet like I do, you probably don’t know I am on Linkedin, Biznik, or Namyz. You may not even know what those websites represent.

In my “universal brand” it means a lot.

An example is if I collect a handle of the testimonials and references I have on those sites:

On my Biznik profile:

Janet Burchfield – Real Estate Broker: “Barry Hurd is flat-out brilliant at navigating the complex world of social media promotions. My brain literally hurt a little, in a good way, after his recent Marketing Strategy Workshop for Real Estate.”

Banu Sekendur – Art Therapist: “Barry is a wealth of information and so generous with it. He is not only brilliant but very easy to relate to and so incredibly modest. He is not just a numbers guys he has a social intelligence that sneaks up on you when you think you have figured him out.”

May Nguyen – Business Development – “Barry is absolutely brilliant. He has given me some great ideas about online marketing and search engine optimization that will be very helpful for my business.”

Switching over to my Linkedin profile:

Toby Barnett – Barnett Associates Real Estate: “Barry is a innovative and forward thinking web guru that will warp your brain if you give him a chance. His cutting edge marketing strategies allow for fast and yet manageable growth for any size company.”
Jeff Collins – “Barry really knows his way around the web & can get you great results if you want you or your company to stand out on the internet.”

Brian Crouch – Business Development “It’s easy to be enthusiastic working for someone who is widely regarded as one of the sharpest minds in the industry. Barry’s reputation as a social media innovator and expert is growing, and I am honored to be associated with him.”

My profile on Namyz

Peter McDowell – Performa Business Development; “Top notch guy who gives freely of his time to help others, like me, understand the ever changing technology landscape. Plus, he’s super smart and visionary when it comes to internet marketing.”

Howard Howell – That Lease Guy: “Barry knows his stuff. I would endorse him as a business associate and recommend his services highly.”

Kevin Hoffberg – Thought leader : “I met Barry several years ago when he did some project work for me. He’s an extraordinarily bright guy. I would recommend him in a heartbeat, particularly when it comes to technologies related to community building.”

What does this mean?

Stop for a moment and think about the nine testimonials above and how much information is available at the click of a button. Sourcing information for what previously took “forever” is now done instantly. Most of the people above are also present on several social networks. You can read more about each person, you can read about what they do for a profession, you can see who you know in common, and if they have a blog you can even see what kind of motorcycle they ride (Kevin Hoffberg’s blog).

In the real world I would have to request this data and take serious effort to track down a small fraction of the same information.

It isn’t just for your eyes only.

One of the amazing and interesting facts of this type of information is that it is not for your eyes only. My professional presence is “out there” for the world to see. I cannot doctor or manipulate it for every person. The article you read here is the same piece of information ten thousand other people will find.

If you have ever hired an employee or a business partner, you have probably discovered that feeling when you question whether or not the person you are hiring is the same one on the piece of paper you are reading. In the social media evolution, the same piece of paper is being sent out to everyone.

Historical data is relevant online.

The internet has a long, long memory. You can find my writing from years ago on my old blog at, it has some great articles on leveraging online conversations, online communities, and even psycho blogging.

This data is becoming more and more about YOU.

Right now, there is a lot of information being collected about you. Have you ever searched for your name or company online and looked at the results? Have you ever asked yourself the question about how many of your associates and friends have searched for your results? Have you come to the conclusion it may be a good idea to start understanding how your professional (and personal) information is being used online?

If you haven’t come to that conclusion, don’t worry. While you are thinking about it people like the MIT Northwest Forum are having entire panels about your information and how businesses are making money off it.

You can read more about professional social media profiles, online reputation control, and online brand management here on 123SocialMedia. Let me know if you have any questions.