Alchemist

The Digital Survival Blueprint

The most valuable commodity is information.

There’s no better example than Flashboys. A “flashboy” is the term given to high frequency traders – not the guy who takes his pants off at parties (the term for that guy is a criminal). Flashboys would exploit information a fraction of a second ahead of the rest of the market (utilizing thousands of trades) and basically print money. Think of betting on a football game – but you know the score before the game is even played. Today, it’s much harder to arbitrage the market with improved technology, equalizing transmission time, better hardware and standardized latency. 

You’re always one trade away from retirement.

When you’re on the private side of an investment bank it’s something you think about – a lot. You’re armed with non-public, material information that only a small group of trusted people have. You know which stocks are going to collapse weeks before they do, which companies will double overnight and worse, you know who won’t have a job before they do. Of course, trading on non-public information is insider trading and is illegal. Martha Stewart (yes, the one on TV) spent 5 months in prison for insider trading. Prison sentences go up to 20 years in the US. If you end up sharing a cell with a convicted axe murderer, just don’t tell him you’re in because you got hold of undisclosed Tesla Model 3 numbers in China and shorted the stock before it tanked. 

But just how far are people willing to go for publicly available information? Very far. The fancy hedge fund term is “alternative data set” which looks for clues where people aren’t looking. This ranges from tracking flight paths, counting the number of tankers in the ocean, following every round of clinical trials & using satellites to count the number of cars in company parking lots. Wait – why would that even matter? Well, what better way to find out if people are being fired?

Here’s the flight map foreshadowing a deal Warren Buffet did with Occidental Chemicals. Hedge funds tracked the private jet landing at the Omaha airport (Buffet’s HQ) and figured out something was happening. A paper from Oxford University tracked aircraft from 36 public companies and identified 7 instances of potential M&A activity. That’s 7 opportunities to make real money.

By now it’s very clear every shrapnel of information and tiny clue telegraphing future performance has the ability to make tons of cash. But what happens when the line between public and private information is blurred? Worse still, what happens when the rush for data moves away from companies and targets you & I instead? That’s exactly what’s happening now. 

It’s no longer planes in the sky, cars on the road or number of packages delivered – it’s us. We’re the data sets stripped of our humanity and fed into sophisticated algorithms to crunch out our every preference. The “machine” can predict every personal activity – our next meal, TV show, running route, sleep pattern, even the type of people we find attractive. The scary part – every single day we voluntarily feed the machine. Oh, and thanks largely to sinister humans and errors, the machine often spills every one of our intimate preferences out into the world.

24 million South Africans (& nearly 800k businesses) had their personal details compromised last night through a breach at Experian. Experian is a credit information agency that uses this rich oilfield of data to develop products across consumer analytics, marketing, data validation and fraud detection. Here’s their official statement:

“Our investigations indicate that an individual in South Africa, purporting to represent a legitimate client, fraudulently requested services from Experian,”

So it’s that really simple. You walk in and request information – boom, here you are. Fortunately, this could have been considerably worse. The criminal in this case intended to sell the information, no surprise.

“The services involved the release of information that is provided in the ordinary course of business or which is publicly available. We can confirm that no consumer credit or consumer financial information was obtained,”    

“Our investigations do not indicate that any misappropriated data has been used for fraudulent purposes. Our investigations also show that the suspect had intended to use the data to create marketing leads to offer insurance and credit-related services.”

This raises a ton of questions around Experian’s ability to keep consumer data safe, the intrusive nature of data collection and even more questions around what we can to do stay safe. 

Here’s an identity theft game plan.

  1. Find out how many times you have been exposed

You have already been compromised, your data has been leaked and chances are, your entire history of cat videos you liked at 3AM is available to someone else. The weakest link in the chain of digital privacy are humans themselves. The recent Twitter breach (like the one at Experian) was thanks to an impersonated identity. Then again, some humans have been known to consume Tide Pods, set themselves alight (for fun) & blindly argue FRIENDS was a great TV show.

Check out ” ‘;–have i been pwned? ” which will tell you when and where your data has been compromised.

Running a check on my personal email account, there was one major incident (there’s most certainly more out there) where my personal details were compromised. Was it when I gave away my privacy in exchange for extra lives on Candy Crush 5 years ago? No – it was the exercise & calorie measurement app. Yet another reason not to watch what you eat. My morning pain au chocolat & double espresso habit found itself on the dark web.

Another useful site to check if any of your private accounts have been compromised is DeHashed

Ultimately, knowledge is power. You really can’t solve for an unknown. Knowing the apps/ platforms that are most vulnerable helps make better choices. More importantly, it’s a splash of icy water when you realize how real this is and sometimes, this is the catalyst we need to be more vigilant. 

What can be done with your private information? “It’s just an ID number, what’s the worst that could happen?”. The end use is endless. You could end up being married to someone you never met, end up purchasing items across the world or even have someone replace you in the world (even if you’re dead). “Ghosting” isn’t just when you stop replying to texts on Tinder – it’s also when criminals steal the identity of dead people and take over bank accounts, apply for new credit and even file fraudulent tax returns.

Personal information on the dark web is really cheap. Here’s a price list:

Dark Web Price Index 2020

It’s actually disappointing someone is willing to pay up to $75 (R1,300) for someone’s Facebook account. Access to people you went to high school with selling Herbalife really isn’t worth that much.

2. Find out the data your favorite apps collect from you

Every social media platform has an entire library of data on each of us. It’s what makes targeted advertising work – ads which pop-up for a holiday to Bali, except you don’t remember even letting Facebook know you wanted an island holiday. It’s creepy, unnerving and strangely accurate.

I downloaded my Facebook data & here’s what I found:

My entire contact list, their phone numbers & the number of times I contacted them together with a full list of advertisers who have my information on a contact list for targeted marketing

Here’s a granular list of thousands of interests, tags & an activity log that helps target ads… It even shows my fondness for garlic bread… Every tiny little facet of you which hints at a preference, it locks it in and records it. Everything. It’s forensic.

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Location services meant Facebook recorded every one of my moves, every single day since joining. It gives you the GPS co-ordinates. That little wine tasting trip? It knew every detail & had it recorded.

In these folders are every message I have ever sent, received, read or deleted via messenger. It even has a log of every sticker used. There’s a full record of every friend request you denied & every person you unfriended.

Here’s where it gets really juicy… this is every picture I ever took/ was tagged in and every single FB search. Here I was searching “Wines of Italy” at 3AM one morning… I don’t remember this. Every song I listened to & the time I listened to it. Every single vote I clicked on.

Every like, comment, emoji, page visited, link you click, video you watch, person you tag… every click is a data entry onto your online DNA & lives forever.

Here’s how you download your Facebook information (might vary depending on the update);

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How to access all the data Twitter collects on you –

  • Go to settings, click account
  • Under Data & Permissions, click “your Twitter data”
  • It will pop up with a tab that allows you to download your data

Here’s some of the thousands of topics which Twitter feels I’m interested in. I have literally no idea how “Bold & Beautiful” creeped into this list (let’s stick with that story). You’re able to uncheck any of these which essentially changes your feed and the way you experience Twitter.

Here’s a useful link on how to download your Tinder data: Download your Tinder data

Below is the information Tinder has on you (including those embarrassing 3AM right swipes).




About that Bali trip? Home speakers (think Alexa) are always listening & records without your consent. There’s something deeply disturbing about your home convos being listened to by a group of strangers.

3. Use protection

Using protection is great advice in any context.

Apply for free Protective Registration: The Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS) will alert all of its members (which include all of the main local banks and credit providers) that your identity is compromised and additional care needs to be taken to confirm institutions are engaging with the right person. The SAFPS will also issue you with confirmation you have been a victim of fraud which will help prove your identity to credit providers. In addition to fraud, the SAFPS will also send out an alert to all its members if you lose your identity document or passport. SAFPS is a non-profit, has membership from all of the main financial institutions and registering is free.

Here’s the link: APPLY FOR PROTECTIVE REGISTRATION

Know your credit score: You could be a victim of fraud right now and be struggling to get access to credit simply because your credit score reflects a debit order gone wrong, a missed payment or debt that is incorrectly showing up. This influences the interest rates bank charge you. Also, errors on a person’s credit history are far more common than we think. The latest TransUnion Financial Hardship Report shows 29% of people don’t monitor their credit scores – at all. You can get a free annual credit report here: Get Free TransUnion Credit Report

Alternatives for credit reports are Experian and ClearScore. ClearScore is not a credit bureau in itself – they essentially show you your Experian report.

As a quick test – which of age, income level and employment history do you think is a main input into your calculating credit report? The answer is none. None of those are direct contributors into your credit score. Too much debt, late payments & high account balances, however, can suffocate your credit score. You can find the main drivers here: My Credit FAQ’s

Worth noting the score derived by a TransUnion will be different to the score a bank will use to determine affordability & ascertain risk.

Get insured: One avenue is personal liability insurance that covers identity theft. Here’s Santam’s offering Santam Identity Theft Cover. A more tailored solution would be to consider specialist identity theft protection. TransUnion has a product called True Identity which costs R99/month and covers insurance, access to a forensic investigator and dark web monitoring. Here’s a link TrueIdentity

Practice good online login hygiene: Two-factor authentication, secure devices and strong passwords are non-negotiable. Making Password123 into Password1234 doesn’t make it unbreakable. Use uppercase/lowercase/numbers/symbols and length. Given the permutations it will take for someone to brute force their way into your account, adding additional characters means size matters (it always does). It’s also definitely worth using a password manager that will force you to avoid using your pets name as a password.

Exercise common sense: This is everything from unsecured public WiFi channels (no, connecting to “SexyBoyShawnMichaels777” is not a great idea), being able to wipe your device remotely, leaving your PC unlocked and going out to lunch, not covering the keypad when you enter your pin, sharing your PIN with someone you date (don’t – it ends in tears), the list goes on. The bank will never phone you up or send you an email asking for your password – ever. The Nigerian prince doesn’t have an inheritance for you either. You really don’t need those penis enlargement pills. Stay questioning. Stay skeptical.

The future…

We live in a dystopian society where our online behavior impacts our physical experience. Before, you acted out your virtual life in The Sims. Now, you’re essentially a character from The Sims living in the real world. There’s no better example than China’s social credit system where your entire experience is moulded by decisions you make and a reward system designed by the government. It’s a George Orwell wet dream on a set of Black Mirror. In essence, it’s the gamification of your entire life.

Source: The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System

Whether it’s Tinder, Betway, Instagram or Robinhood… our generation is defined by tiny hits of dopamine that keep reeling us back into a toxic reward loop. Social media fuels this illusion of “perfect”. We’re on a roulette wheel constantly chasing something that doesn’t exist while staying addicted to the fresh kick from rewards. No generation before us has been constantly bombarded digital noise. 

It’s that little notification alert we can’t help but tap, the email preview we see flash on the corner of our screens, the picture that gets hundreds of likes. We just want more. Then you do more, you take more impressive pictures which turn hundreds of likes into thousands of likes. Authenticity is a mirage. You’re a victim of a platform designed to keep your screen time at suffocating levels of engagement.

The paradox is that everything has been made easier digitally but left a massive vacuum in actual interpersonal relationships. This is only compounded with COVID. Overlay a culture of instantaneous gratification and it’s simply toxic. You want food in 15min? UberEats. You want to score a date in an hour? Tinder. Need a movie right now? Netflix. The downside of gamification, instant gratification and stripping away interpersonal relationships is that we commoditize experiences. There’s no nuance. Rate your Uber driver out 5 stars, rate your online shopping experience, rate your hotel on Booking.com, down vote a comment you don’t agree with, rate your holiday on TripAdvisor. We distill down every interaction into a physical, concrete, quantitative data point. 

Maybe the best solution to beating this soulless juggernaut of algorithms is to starve it from harvesting our rich experiences. Reduce our digital presence in exchange for a more physical, authentic one. The answer lies beyond our rising follow counts constant alerts and flashing notifications.

Unplug.

Latest posts by Koshiek Karan (see all)
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Reshoketswe Daphney Teffo
Reshoketswe Daphney Teffo
3 months ago

Great content, you deserve to be Mr of Finance. Appreciated

swiftplugz
swiftplugz
3 months ago

I enjoy your work. Thank You Koshiek. May you fulfill the life you desire.

Johannes
3 months ago

Informative indeed

Dean Jafta
Dean Jafta
3 months ago

Informative as always from Banker X

Shaun
Shaun
3 months ago

Great article thanks Koshiek. Very valuable site

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