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surveillance capitalism

Have you ever looked up your house on Google Maps Street View? Fun, right? But did you give someone permission to photograph your house and upload that photo to a giant database? Didn’t think so. Every day, we expose ourselves to surveillance capitalism.

Google maps on smart phone
Is your house on Google maps?

Surveillance Capitalism Explored

Last fall, a book was published examining the idea that we’re all being watched for profit. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. She came up with the phrase that denotes the monetization of data collected by monitoring our movements online and in the physical world. Zuboff says that all the information collected on us that isn’t being used for our benefit is treated as behavioural surplus. This info is then processed via machine intelligence to create models that predict what we’ll do now, soon, and later.

How is Data Used?

Is surveillance capitalism the price we pay for the conveniences of living in a digital world? For example, if you allow your insurance company to outfit your car with a tracking device that records data related to your driving, you may receive a discount. What do they get in return? All sorts of information on where you’re driving and how you’re driving—in short, anything in your car’s computer. Your insurance company may be analyzing this data, or they may be using a third party to do the analysis. What does the fine print say concerning the information they can share with advertisers? It’s up to the customer to read or ask for these details. Using this device could mean a discount or your insurance rates. It could also increase your rates, based on recorded information. Moreover, the details of your driving could be sold, hacked, or used for something other than insurance analysis.

Target Markets

When it comes to marketing, the most efficient way to make money is to speak to a target market. Instead of wasting time and money advertising baby food to senior citizens, target marketing means people over 65 are getting ads for life insurance, cruise ship deals, and lawn mowing services. Knowing things like age and income can lead to a customer profile which allows a business to serve up ads that are most likely to connect with an audience.

surveillance capitalism
Data collection leads to targetted marketing

A digital footprint reveals a lot about an individual and facilitates targeted marketing. Collecting data on what your search, the websites you visit, your social media activity, and other online activities paints a pretty accurate picture of you as a consumer. This kind of information can be pulled from just about any account you’ve signed up for online. Businesses collect that data and may even sell it to third parties, all in an effort to get your attention.

Data Collection

We all generate a lot of personal data illustrating our behaviours. The whole idea behind surveillance capitalism is the commodification of behaviour. There are dollars to be squeezed out of our predictable actions and the companies collecting this information are looking to capitalize. Data brokers were born out of this glut of information, gathering up the pieces and then selling it to companies or individuals. Any company that’s gathering information on their customers could potentially profit from the data they’re collecting.

Crossing the Line

When does collecting customer information cross the line? When does it go from helpful to invasive? For many, this is a deeply personal question. When Amazon suggests products that align with customer purchases, a lot of people like that kind of tailored service. A bank that sends a notice about a new account that fits your financial profile is catering to you personally. Data collection can result in better customer service by understanding how an audience interacts with specific content. You receive customized promotions and special offers, while overall service for everyone can be improved by this form of active listening.

surveillance capitalism
Facebook has been in hot water for data collection on users

For all the perceived benefits of data collection, there is definitely a sinister ring to “surveillance capitalism”. Most of us have had a moment when we’re served up an ad that feels a little too personal. Maybe you were recently discussing a new coffee machine with a friend and your Facebook ads are suddenly all about the latest java gadgets. Or a typo resulted in a search that put you on a list for dog walkers. The downside of customer data collection ranges from a small annoyance to more major issues like security breaches and undisclosed monitoring.


Privacy protection is a burden to be shared by consumers and companies alike. It may be arduous to read through the long consent forms you need to agree to before signing up for a digital convenience like an app. Businesses should take the opportunity to clearly communicate what data is being collected and how it’s being used. This includes all the positive ways that collection can affect the consumer. And the consumer should take the time to read this information, which is easier to do when it’s presented in a format that’s easily digestible. There are government rules and regulations in place to protect the consumer concerning data collection and privacy. But it’s one thing to adhere to those rules and another to bury the particulars in confusing legalese.

Protecting Your Privacy

Most people are willing to sacrifice some degree of privacy to enjoy the benefits of having an online profile. As a consumer, you can take steps to protect yourself from data trackers. But if the idea of surveillance capitalism makes your skin crawl, you can try logging off. However, chances are that if you’ve been using the internet, your information is already out there. Cold comfort in a digital age.

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