Cover of MoneyWeek magazine issue no 648

You have no secrets

12 July 2013 / Issue 648

The companies that spy on you


  • How to time the market successfully
  • Andy Murray – how much is he worth?
  • The modest billionaire who made maps big business



John Stepek

Between 1984 and Star Trek

In the 2002 science-fiction film Minority Report, the main character (played by Tom Cruise) is chased through a shopping precinct. As he runs past advertising billboards, they call to him by name, images shifting to show things he might want to buy. I was at Wired magazine’s money conference this month, and an executive from online payments giant PayPal asked if the audience would find this ‘cool’ or ‘creepy’ in real life. As an evangelist for a firm closely linked to online retail, he thought it was ‘cool’ that firms could easily spot you, and sell you goods you might actually want. Much of the audience thought it was ‘creepy’. I didn’t think either fitted. The word I had in mind was ‘annoying’.

Yes, there are lots of ‘creepy’ aspects to our heavily monitored existence. Look at the fate of US spy agency whistleblower Ed Snowden, seemingly destined for exile in Venezuela. He may turn out to be a cunning double agent. But I suspect he’s just an idealistic 30-year-old who hasn’t yet quite realised what he gave up to tell the world what we already knew. Equally, lots of ‘cool’ benefits can come from sharing data. Our cover story looks at some of the uses for big data and ways to invest in the sectorWe also profile the billionaire founder of one of the most useful companies you’ve probably never heard of – map-making specialists Esri.

But on a mundane level, somewhere between the horrors of 1984 and the optimism of Star Trek, the biggest problem I see with big data is all the spam (hi-tech junk mail) we’ll be hit with.

• Read the full editor’s letter here: Between 1984 and Star Trek