Digital technologies have begun to revolutionize our lives. They change the way we shop, work, communicate, get our news, and even how we conduct our relationships. The world is just beginning to explore how humans, and civilization as a whole, are affected by this digitization. A new term, surveillance capitalism, aims to shed light on the issue. First found in a book by long-time Harvard Business School professor Shoshanna Zuboff, the term is becoming a label for the ways that businesses are using the mountains of data that are generated by our online lives to monitor consumer behavior and more effectively sell their products and services.

Monitoring Experiences

On a daily basis, billions of people log into and use websites, social media apps, and online search engines. With this activity, they tell others what they’re willing to pay for, what they’re feeling and thinking or what they need more information about.  In the process of doing this, they mention the reaction to the products they use and give clues about the products they need in the future.

The information can get pretty specific. Consumers make shopping choices and respond to coupons. They talk about the restaurant they are dining at, their children’s activities, their trips, the television shows they like or the music they listen to, and their political or social views. Each of these purchases, search inquiries, or social media postings can be considered a data point. The piece of digitized information is saved, cataloged, and combined with data points from other users to show trends.

A range of organizations currently pay for access to this data. That means that for consumers, who willingly and happily share information online on a regular basis, their internet activity is no longer private. Though it may often be used in aggregate, the activity is being watched by multiple organizations who are interested in consumer trends. The consumer is likely to have never given their fully-informed permission for the data to be used. They may not even understand the extent to which it is taking place.

How Businesses Are Using Data

With the term surveillance capitalism, Zuboff labels the data monitoring process and appears concerned about what is happening. Coverage of the book’s release and an interview with Zuboff by Tech Columnist John Naughton was published in The Guardian.  Subtitled “The goal is to automate us, welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism”, the piece notes that as consumer habits are being observed by private companies, there is very little regulation or oversight of data collection processes.

How Much Is Being Analyzed?

It may be easy to understand how user interactions with websites, search engines, and social media platforms contribute to data that businesses and marketers analyze.  However, sources for data that companies use go a little bit deeper. In his article, Naughton mentions that, despite copyright laws, Google “decided it would digitize and store a copy of every book ever printed.” It also talks about how the search engine has copies of every street and house on the planet but didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to do this. Digital mapping and location companies play a role in this activity as well.

How Surveillance Capitalism Began

As part of her interview with Naughton, Zuboff described her views on how monitoring consumers private data became key to the way that companies now do business. She started her historical review by looking back to the 2001 technology sector crash when companies needed to find new revenue streams in order to survive.

Zuboff focused on Google as an example of her history. She related that the organization, under investor pressure, began to boost revenue by offering advertisers access to their user data gained through user click-thru rates. As this business model worked, Google looked for additional data points that it could use for sale. In the succeeding years, other companies with access to data replicated what was happening based on their own platforms.

Cookies: A Key Tool Of Surveillance Capitalism

As surveillance capitalism takes place, consumers may notice that a cookie has been activated on their website. Cookies are one of the main tools that companies use to track online activity. This small text file has a customer service use in that it allows you to remain logged into a certain site rather than having to re-submit username and password information for every visit. Cookies also have a tracking function, however. Oftentimes, sites will request that users agree to permit the use of cookies by clicking a “yes” box on a quick online form.

Returning To Privacy

For those who may want technology to become less intrusive, going back to days of more privacy and less surveillance may not be easy. The information-driven business model is unbelievably profitable and the process of using data is intricately tied to how many companies now work. In his article, Naughton compared asking businesses to roll back their information use to what it would be like if someone requested that Henry Ford went back to making his cars by hand.

However, consumers can help themselves tremendously if they take the time to research and understand what is happening. On an individual level, they can take steps to become aware of cookies that are active on their computer and consider if they want to accept cookies for each website that they visit. They can also be aware of what types of information they are posting to social media. These actions are a start to giving consumers more privacy and more control over how data related to their online activity is used.