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Surveillance Capitalism: How Big Brother Came Home in the Last Decade

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As we increasingly use devices, we bring ourselves under surveillance. That new reality raises concerns.

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

OK. So. How the ever living F*** did Amazon know we just purchased baking pans.

We did NOT google them.

We did not search for them on Amazon.

I am officially creeped out.

Are You Listening to Me?

A few of the responses to that post suggested that the various listening capabilities voice-activated devices now carried may have heard her talking about the purchase and registering the information even without any direct data feed.

Likely Amazon would deny that it’s listening in. But the fact is that anyone who purchases an Echo is bringing in something built to hear and possibly overhear them.

The general adoption of the smart home device has accelerated since 2014 when Amazon introduced its Alexa-powered Echo speaker. Now Amazon has sold over 100 million Echo units and set the stage for a growing for smart home competitors and accessories.

The proliferation of devices that enable businesses to collect information about consumer habits and behaviors has created a new surveillance economy.

That, in turn, has led to the discussions of privacy advocates, government representatives, and the businesses whose lifeblood is data to consider how to navigate this new terrain and what regulations need to be in place.


Privacy Progress

At 2020 CES, the Wall Street Journal reported one of the issues brought up was the difficulty in letting consumers know exactly what personal data is collected, something which anyone complying with theCalifornia law that took effect on January first would have to do. (See: Privacy Compliance: Gearing Up for 2020)

The fact that there is someone at Facebook with the title “privacy chief” — Erin Egan — reflects the fact that the companies that deal in data have to at least demonstrate some concern about respecting people’s privacy.

However, what she said in the Wall Street Journal article indicates that what the business regards as maintaining privacy may not be quite the same as what individual consumers have in mind.

Egan insisted that Facebook would not be required to make changes to its web-tracking to be in compliance of the new California privacy law, CCPA, because they “do not sell data.”

She explained: “Acting as a service provider and using data for business purposes pursuant to a contract with a company like a P&G does not count as 'a sale' of data.

“We are acting as a service provider on behalf of our clients to serve ads on their behalf,” she said, which is not selling the data to the clients.

Profiting Off Data

In fact, user data is being used for marketing purposes, but because it is not technically sold outright, the social media giant can claim to be in complete compliance and not have to account for what it does with personal data.

That’s a legal perspective rather than an ethical one, though, but the law is not necessarily about what people expect or consider fair use. That’s one of the points made by Steve O’Brien,’s President of Staffing.

He observed that today’s tech companies are reaping “record profits and growth rates that others couldn’t have imagined on the backs of other people’s data.”

The concern there is not just the use of data but the fact that there is an “absence of relationship between the data producer and the commodifier of that data.” That is what O'Brien said feels wrong.

Social Capital Commodified

Services like Facebook are called social media because they were originally presented as ways for people to connect with each other online. O’Brien referred to the concept of social capital advanced by Robert Putnam.

It’s the idea that people “crave being known,” he said, referring to the theme song from the television show Cheers: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

In social interactions, people want to be seen and even be anticipated.

The shift that occurred now is due to the advance of “surveillance capital.”

Technology is used to gather personal data, whether through tracking behavior online or by direct listening. As a result, social capital is being commodified to anticipate what the individual may buy to benefit businesses.

The Question of Who Benefits

“One of the strongest predictors of desire is to create the desire yourself,” O’Brien pointed out. That dates back to the way Mad men set about selling Lucky cigarettes, which was a way of not just anticipating but even creating the desire for the product.

With today’s data collection that can be done far more effectively. The concern that arises is the “disenfranchisement of the individual” under the new system.

The issue here is not that “only a small number get the benefit,” O'Brien said. Huge companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon capitalize on the data collected to sell more. Surveillance is not about “getting to know the neighbor,” the heart of social capital but of marketing.

Privacy Prognosis

O’Brien believes that the new regulations being adopted like California’s CCPA will likely raise the bar for greater transparency and individual control of personal data.

For all practical purposes, businesses that have to comply with one state will get up to that standard across the board in anticipation of that very likely outcome that other states will follow suit.

Aside from fixing some of the problems through data privacy regulations, O'Brien believes that people should be paid for their participation in large data models. That’s the philosophy at

“It does surveillance economy work in anticipating and matching people’s needs better,” he explained, though they also get paid for “being in our ecosystem.”

In contrast to the schism between the data provider and the business that commodifies the data, he considers, which disenfranchises the individual, O’Brien envisions a fairer future in which:

“The data providers are shareholders of the value of their data.”


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Ariella Brown
Ariella Brown

Ariella Brown has written about technology and marketing, covering everything from analytics to virtual reality since 2010. Before that she earned a PhD in English, taught college level writing and launched and published a magazine in both print and digital format.Now she is a full-time writer, editor, and marketing consultant.Links to her blogs, favorite quotes, and photos can be found here at Write Way Pro. Her portfolio is at