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My Debit Card Is Telling Google (and who knows who else?) What I Buy

Getting a glimpse at the new world we’re traveling towards.

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BROOKLYN, New York- The cashless society is being sold to us as something that will make life more convenient, cleaner, and more secure. But it will also allow corporations and, more than likely, governments to not only track everything we buy but where we buy it and at what time — information they can use at their will or sell to other parties.

I bought a bottle of Essentia water last night at a co-op in Brooklyn. I bought it because it was on sale. I have never done an internet search for Essentia water. I’ve never even conducted a search for anything related to bottle watered at all. However, this morning when I opened up a webpage that I regularly visit there was a massive Google AdWords banner ad for Essentia water.

How did they know I bought this type of bottled water last night?

I thought about it for a moment and realized that I made the purchase with a debit card.

Obviously, the company behind this card is selling my purchase history to advertising outlets in real time. As soon as I make a purchase it’s logged into a massive database and immediately distributed to who knows how many third parties, who can easily track my location, what time I go places, and what I purchase.

How it probably works is connecting my name/profile/personal identification number on the debit card side with the data that AdWords has collected about me via my Google account — I still use Gmail — so my purchases in the real world are seamlessly linked with my online identity.

Now you can say who cares, it’s just a bottle of water? But let’s say what I bought wasn’t water. Let’s say it was beer, liqueur, cigarettes, junk food … Do you really want to provide your existing or potentially future health insurance providers with the justification for raising your rates or denying you coverage? Let’s say it was guns, bullets, or a bong … is there anything stopping landlords from doing a check and denying your rental application? Let’s say you go to a bookstore and by a book on vegetarianism and then some animal rights activist throws a brick through the window of a shop selling fur coats next door later that night. Do you become a suspect?

This isn’t sci-fi anymore. China, the most populated country in the world, for all intents and purposes, is now cashless and has a full-fledged social credit system where every citizen’s character is graded (and provided / denied rights and services based on the score). Europe has cashless stores all over the place. A couple of years ago India suddenly declared 85% of its currency null and void as a shock tactic to force more people to use electronic payment systems. In five or so years expect to see massive PR campaigns against the evils of cash. Expect to soon associate cash transactions with illegality. Cash will soon be criminal.

What we buy is who we are. What we buy gives indicators of our race, our social class, our beliefs, our political views, our health, and what we like to do. This information combined with our online search histories, data scrapped by apps, and what goes up about us on Facebook and other internet sources provides a pretty clear picture of who we are, where we go, what we’ve done, what we believe, who we associate with, and what we may do in the future.

Remember that movie about preemptive crime fighting?

What’s your definition of freedom?


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Filed under: Essays, Money

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

9 comments… add one

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  • Trevor April 12, 2019, 6:22 pm

    This is freaking scarry…… you gotta move like Jack, no middle name, Reacher. or Bourne. stay off the grid. no cards, unfortunateley, no flying or going across international borders..
    im not getting the ads like u r…. yet. if i do, omg…

    got a new back account with less withdrawal charges but a new scare about N26.. accounts. savings under the matress is preferable..

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    • Wade Shepard April 12, 2019, 10:19 pm

      No kidding. That was the first time that I noticed that happen. I understand if you’re searching for something online and you get related online ads but this happened IRL and then the data was fed to online advertisers. This may seem innocuous at first but then when we look at where it’s going it’s pretty scary.

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      • Trevor April 12, 2019, 10:45 pm

        i visited ur fav site. buffaloramblings. no ads related to me.. or my activities. just in the SPONSORED ads.. ads relevant to my home town that i get on news sites/feeds.. just wanted to double check.

        here contact payment or what ever its called is maxed at 30£ ive never used til now. i use my bank card for almost everything. using the pin code.. funnily enough i paid cash for some supplies today, felt strange. times have changed.
        oh btw
        those Bills shirts r available here too. £££ 75£ for the white and the blue one.

      • Wade Shepard April 15, 2019, 3:33 pm

        Yeah, it’s crazy how used to being cashless we’ve become. I had to pay for something with cash yesterday and it seemed like going back in time.

        The ads are delivered by Google Adwords, so it doesn’t have much to do with the site. As you navigate around the internet and visit sites with Google ads (a huge amount of for profit sites) they will collect info on you. It’s kind of like a dragnet.

        Haha yes, there are many English Bills fans … for some reason. My guess is that their colors are the same as your flag???

  • Trevor April 12, 2019, 6:31 pm

    name and shame ur bank ?.

    surely they shouldnt be doing this?

    What’s your definition of freedom freedom is just another word for nothing less to lose.

    new bank, lower charges, but only 2 year validity before card expires wth… thats not freedom.

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  • Trevor April 12, 2019, 6:42 pm

    Freedom…..being able to travel indefinitely…. being able to manage EVERYTHING, remotely. re issuing expired bank cards means relying on family members to send, , an income of 15bucks a day… together with nice lump sum in the bank… and not having to worry about if a 2nd beer will leave u broke….

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    • Wade Shepard April 15, 2019, 3:42 pm

      Right on!

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  • Rob April 12, 2019, 10:34 pm

    You have a smart phone? Maybe it heard you mention the water or maybe it reported to it’s master what you bought.

    Cashless is a huge boon to the banking industry, you HAVE to use their services and they are all about greed. People without much (like a bank account) have to pay a premium price to access their money…

    The world is changing fast!

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    • Wade Shepard April 15, 2019, 3:42 pm

      Haha maybe! I use a BlackBerry but I wouldn’t doubt it.

      Yes, the legality of cashless will eventually be challenged, I believe. As you said, it forces people to use the private banking system. In China, cashless stores, etc, are technically illegal — they have to offer a cash option — however, the reality tells a different story.

      Yes, we’re traveling into that Sci fi dystopia where everything seems good on the surface.

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