Business Intelligence (BI) is a key for companies to unlock their revenue potentials and push greater profit numbers. The trick to good BI is gaining as much information about potential customers as possible and being able to make sense of it all. Typically, this means information that the customers themselves probably aren’t even aware of.

It is no shock that companies track buyer’s habits, looking for patterns to use for pushing products. Studies in years past have completely changed how supermarkets lay out their internal displays and tend to force walking patterns of consumers in certain directions. There are even organizations that specialize in surveillance software that will outline traffic patterns—not just for street traffic, but traffic in stores as well. None of this is any different today than it was decades ago, except that the level of sophistication in these BI tools has skyrocketed beyond what most could have imagined.

Imagine walking into a grocery store. Chances are you turn left as you enter. Even superstores that carry more goods than groceries require a left turn to buy your favorite consumable goods. I am not sure why; it’s not like turning right will suddenly make you not feel like buying produce. Or will it? Study after study has been done about actions people make subconsciously during everyday tasks or conversations. Looking a certain direction tends to mean a person is lying. So what else is happening to track buyers’ habits, and—an even bigger question—what does that mean to us?

On Customer “Demand”
The Internet is a great place to keep tabs on all your friends and see the latest news around the world. Nowadays, the Internet is in our pocket, our car, at home, at work and nearly any place else that you can dream up. At any given time, we are only seconds from the goofy Facebook taglines of our friends, or the latest tweet about what makes our siblings irritated while in line at the convenient store. All of this, of course, is completely free of charge, save the cost of connecting to the Internet.

We use these increasingly popular services and demand their availability, as well as better functionality. The social networks are more than willing to oblige us of these demands. The demands, however, are only ours in belief. In reality, these demands are only met because companies, marketers and advertisers demand we have them. For these services we are promised, we are not their customers—we are their product. Our viewing of endless phone deals, flying at cheaper prices, better insurance rates and other deals of the day is what drives social networks to offer the best possible services to our “demand.”

Surely, no one can argue about a free service with some advertising splashed across the page. But have you ever seen an advertisement at the login screen for these social sites? The answer is probably no. How about when you sign out? The answer is yes. Social sites know that users don’t want to see ads when they log in; they just want those services made available at our “demand.” The answer to why those ads exist when we log out, however, goes much deeper than getting one last advertisement in front of your eyes.

A Repository of Habits
By now, everyone should be aware of Internet cookies—those small files of information that identify us to websites after we log in. They exist so you don’t have to log in every time you click a link or respond to a message. These cookies that identify you and your browser to the website will stay around and also identify that same cookie to other websites. To help protect your privacy, your name isn’t necessarily used, but an identifier of your account is.

Every website on which you see a Facebook “Like” button, Twitter quick link or LinkedIn “Share” button knows that this cookie still stored in your browser can identify your account. The site then tracks that your account visited a certain page at a particular date and time and can potentially even track how you got there. Add this to the browser on your phone, and if allowed, it can tell precisely where you were when you visited the site.

All of this is to build an absurdly large repository of people’s browsing and buying habits. This includes things obscure and searchable, like finding out whether or not people who are standing outside, in the afternoon, after checking in on Facebook and visiting a website about car racing, are more likely to buy cheap hotels. Think that is a crazy statistic? Think again.

Stock trading websites absolutely want to know your trading habits based on reading a happy or sad article while it is raining in the morning. How they get such information is based on a simple fact. People check their social sites regularly, and events after they do so are easily traceable. Not to worry, though; these sites that are tracking you to provide useful information to you probably protect your data very well. After all, that data is their competitive advantage.

Most people do not like feeling that their habits are tracked, even though it happens all day, every day. If you are concerned about that, don’t worry—social sites are the least of your concern. If you have a Nokia, Android or Blackberry phone, you might be interested in what the program Carrier IQ is doing as you read this article. A bit off-topic, but it is all about tracking everything that happens in order to offer better service to the customer. As we mentioned before, though, sometimes it is difficult to determine who the customer is, and what the product actually is.

Launch Pad for Attack
Companies are not the only ones who want to follow you and know your habits. Social websites are a grossly infested launch pad for millions of malicious attacks and programs. Facebook is, by great lengths, far ahead of their social competitors in these malicious attacks—probably rightfully so, with their complex integration with games and news, in addition to being so popular it got its own movie with top actors to star in it. Where is your movie, Twitter? Linkedin, Google+, we’re looking at you, too.

Joking aside, it is the quickest way to craft a nifty little malicious tool and potentially reach more than 750 million users. In short, if Facebook were its own country, it would be the third-largest country in the world. Even if you can only trick 0.01 percent of them to click on your malicious program, you would have a very successful launch. The latest, and most dangerous, was an image of two blonde girls promising a screensaver. The actual message carried what is known as the ZeuS Virus.

You might ask yourself, “Don’t these people have anything better to do?” Not really. There is some big money to be made selling technology so others can use your computer to carry out attacks or assist in identity theft, resulting in huge cash profits for the distributors. The ZeuS virus alone is responsible for more than $230 million in losses from banks and companies, accompanied by nearly 400 individual FBI cases.

So what can be done to help protect you from being tracked or used as an unaware party in cybercrimes? To start, understand that there is little you can do to completely remove yourself from being tracked or from being a target while using social sites. Just understanding the risk that exists is half the battle. Next, while using your favorite social media site, make sure you clean your cookies and browser memory prior to logging in and after logging out of the site. Most importantly, while using such services, never click on messages from people you don’t know. And if you do know them, you can always do a quick Google search of the message if it looks somewhat suspicious.

One nice thing about social media sites being so popular is that it would be quite rare for you to be the first one to receive a virus message. If you do, there will likely be notification of malicious messages appearing within a few hours of the first infection. Lastly, social media sites are here to stay. The more you know about how to protect yourself and staying aware of the different types of threats, the more protected you will be. iBi