Big Brother will only get bigger - here’s how to profit from it

The collection of personal data by governments and corporations is only going to increase. But you can profit from ‘Big Data’. John Stepek explains how.

Americans have been scandalised by the recent news that the security services are spying on their every email and phone call.

It's understandable. Giving Tesco a licence to track your every purchase in exchange for loyalty points is one thing. Learning that Uncle Sam (or the British government, for that matter) can listen in on every inane conversation you have is quite another.

The irritating thing is that this is just something we're going to have to get used to. We can't wind the clock back on mass communication we just need to adjust our behaviour to fit the new world.

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But on the flipside, the good news is, you can make a lot of money from this

Trading privacy for convenience

Companies will try to use this data to sell you stuff. Governments will try to use it to check you're not planning to blow something up. Regulators will take silly emails you wrote about how much fun it was to rig the Libor rate, and use them against you in evidence.

In short, any time you use a search engine or write an email to anyone you should imagine that a customer, or a client, or a regulator, is standing over your shoulder reading it.

Now all of this data is messy. There's a staggering amount of it (that's why it's called Big Data'). Analysing it is a nightmare. So for all the ideas of Big Brother', and corporations second-guessing your every move, they're just not that good at it yet.

But they'll get better. And unless you decide you are going to live completely off-grid' (which would almost certainly flag you up as a security risk in a properly paranoid police state), then you can't avoid it.

So it's something we have to get used to. This is not an area where we can wind the clock back. And I'm not sure we'd want to. Sharing our data can be incredibly useful, as long as we trust the end-users.

I love the fact that Amazon regularly throws out good ideas for books I might want to read. I also rather like Google boss Larry Page's idea of an electronic assistant that can organise my diary for me before I've even thought about it. If I could one day trust it to analyse my spending habits and track down the best credit card, current account or insurance deals for me, and deal with all the paperwork, that'd be even better.

I'm not saying we should trade freedom for security. That's a very different argument. But trading an element of privacy for convenience is much more tempting, as long as the process is transparent and the data is secure.

Perhaps the solution is to ensure that consumers have control and access to their own data. Just as you are able to check your credit record and challenge the data held there if you think it's wrong, we need something similar for other personal data.

Anything the government or a company is allowed to know about you (such as your search history, or your phone records, or your purchasing preferences) should be easily accessible to you too.

I suspect that if you could see what companies thought they knew about you written on a single standardised report, you'd rapidly realise how fallible the whole process is, and it would all look a lot less sinister.

How to profit from Big Data

If you're looking for a company that will exploit the opportunities from big data better than any other, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is an obvious choice. It's the biggest search engine by far, which effectively means it is the gatekeeper to the internet. It owns Android, the biggest operating software system in the mobile world. It has a head start in areas like electric cars, which means it will also more than likely dominate the internet of things' (which is when just about every device in the world can communicate with one another and eventually share energy usage as well as data).

Also all this data needs to be stored somewhere. We've been tipping internet hotel' or data centre companies for years now in MoneyWeek. These companies basically hire out server space to other companies. My colleague Bengt Saelensminde recently took a look at one very promising option iomart in his email, The Right Side.

Finally and this may sound odd but I can't help but feel that producers of luxury stationery will benefit from all this. Ironically, the only way you can be assured of private communication these days is to use old-fashioned pen and paper, or a journal. And as electronic communication becomes ever more advanced (new keyboard interfaces mean you barely need to type on some devices), the idea of writing something down physically will seem almost decadent hence the luxury angle. Italy-listed Moleskine (Milan: MSK) is one out-of-the-way option to play this.

We'll be looking at this in more detail at Big Data in a future issue of MoneyWeek magazine. Also, in this week's issue of MoneyWeek (out on Friday), my colleague Matthew Partridge looks at energy efficiency. That might seem a bit of a jump, but it's actually closely related to the question of big data'.

All those servers use an awful lot of electricity one estimate suggests that the IT business is now responsible for as many greenhouse gas' emissions as the aviation industry. Making them run more efficiently and on less energy is a major goal Matthew has picked out a stock that should profit from this. If you're not already a subscriber, subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine.

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John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.