That kind of observational reconnaissance used to be the only way you could get any intelligence on those around you. Now you have to go out of your way not to know what people are up to. On Facebook and Instagram you see posts not just of kid's ball games and parties you weren't invited to, but also vacation trips and shopping excursions, updated flower beds and botched remodeling jobs, new loves and old hates. Sometimes it feels that if you aren't living out loud and only mentioning last night's dinner to your office mate that you are no better than a hermit.
That's the stuff you want to share with the outside world and make a point of posting for all to see. But as has been reported endlessly, your online activities paint a far more detailed portrait of you than the pictures you post. Your shopping habits and browser searches and driving directions show not just the outer you that you want the world to see, but the inner you of how you think and act. To paraphrase a Dean Martin song of long ago, your selfies may tell me no no, but there's yes yes in your Googling eyes.
But it's not just companies you do business with that have access to this kind of data. If your activities with others involves payment, you likely have to settle up. For a very large number or people, the way to do that is not to throw cash onto the table or split credit cards, but to use Venmo. If you're not familiar with the service, it's similar to PayPal and in fact is owned by them. However, where PayPal has evolved almost into a bank, and is used as a payment service for goods much like MasterCard or Visa, Venmo has focused on transferring funds between individuals. In fact, Venmo's website explicitly states that the service is "designed for payments between friends and people who trust each other." It has become so popular that many use "to Venmo" as a verb.
One of the features of the service is that you have to input a reason for the transfer of funds, either with words or an emoticon. If you don't set your account to private, and many, many do not, all see where you are spending your money. Some folks put the mundane: "Last night's dinner" or "Ride to gym" or "Hair and Makeup." Emoticons tell the story as well: a beer stein is self-explanatory, as is a taco or a slice of pizza. True, you can never tell when it might be an inside gag: "sex and weed" might be a funny reference between friends. But maybe not. An app called Vicemo aggregates transactions that let you see "who's buying drugs, booze, and sex on Venmo." You decide: is a transfer from Samuel to Sydney for "lots and lots of drugs" a goof or a class A felony?
A study by Berlin-based coder and privacy researcher Hang Do Thi Duc looked at over 200 million Venmo transactions. From them she was able to assemble portraits of a number of users. In one example she determined two people were a married couple, that they owned a car and a dog, shopped for groceries weekly at Walmart, were paying off a loan, and frequently ordered pizza when eating out.
Even in my own world I see patterns that might be better left hidden. One young woman in college, who shall remain nameless, regularly posts payments on Sunday AM for "Shots and beers last night." Meanwhile it's a fair bet she's telling her parents she's staying in studying. She can only hope that what happens on Venmo stays on Venmo. My lips are sealed.
Marc Wollin of Bedford has all his settings set to private. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.