Evading the Long Shadow of Surveillance Capitalism

How to stay off the big tech company radars

May 20, 2021

Pedestrians on busy crossing with blurred screen images covering their faces indicating surveillance

Image source: Adobe Stock Images License by © Alexander

The “Big Brother is watching you” issue has confronted all internet users since the dawn of the internet era.

Who is Big Brother? These days, Big Brother could be any one of the global tech giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and others who share a common best practice – surveillance capitalism.

While this sounds like a covert operation, surveillance capitalism is a popular marketing tactic that targets you every time you conduct an internet search.

For instance, after you purchase your new couch, your social media feeds are suddenly full of advertisements for couches. Following an online chat about the latest iPhone or the newest Galaxy — you can’t seem to stop seeing ads for both!

When you conduct a search for cocktail shakers, the internet is quick to let you know just how vast and varied your drink mixing equipment options are.

Receiving these “push adverts” is not a coincidence – this is surveillance capitalism in action.

 

How it works

As with most marketing processes, surveillance capitalism relies almost exclusively on one crucial commodity: Your personal data.

Companies that provide popular free online services such as Google, Facebook and Instagram, surveil your online activities and produce data that can be used for commercial purposes – activities such as:

  • Online browsing and purchases
  • Searches
  • Social likes and shares

They sell the collected data to companies that purchase online advertising through them – this helps them to achieve three major objectives.

  1. Profiting directly from the sale of the data.
  2. The data helps their customers develop more targeted marketing campaigns. More targeted campaigns almost always translate to more profits. When marketers are profitable, they increase their advertising spend which, again, is good for the data collectors’ bottom lines.
  3. Thirdly, internet users respond positively to targeted content. While it may seem creepy at first that Facebook has all the details regarding your recent Amazon search, there is a strong likelihood that you will increase the frequency with which you use Facebook because you know you will find content that is relevant to you.

At the end of the day, search engines and social media platforms just want to make their users happy, and data collection helps them do that.

 

A big business

Revenue and profit are the driving forces behind data collection, and Google was the first to harvest data for commercial purposes.

Following in Google’s footsteps, more “Big Others” (as coined by academic Shoshana Zuboff in 2014) have emerged – Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Together, “the big four” harvest unparalleled quantities of data to develop new products, and services, to sell through their sister companies.

This has resulted in spectacular growth for these companies. Today, the “big four”, along with Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Microsoft, make up the top six biggest companies by market capitalization standards. Alphabet currently has a value of over $800 billion.

While the Big Others control much of the world’s digital data, smaller third-parties are also getting in on the business. These parties source data from smaller organizations such as medical offices, apps and service providers. They then aggregate the data and sell it to interested organizations. For instance, a few years ago one small medical appointment scheduling app was caught sharing users’ personal information with a personal injury law firm.

 

Alexa hears everything

Sources of data have expanded to include all types of devices, even toys. This was spotlighted in a class action lawsuit against Amazon in 2019.

In the claim, the lead plaintiff alleged that Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, was secretly recording users in their private spaces and without their permission. The recordings, the plaintiff asserted, were then stored and used for Amazon’s commercial purposes, which is in violation of several laws.

Though Amazon’s defense team reminded the plaintiff that Alexa only starts recording after hearing the “wake word” (set by the user) the plaintiff alleged that Alexa, and other Echo devices, are constantly listening. She further went on to assert that the devices record even without hearing the wake word.

The accusations don’t end there. Per the lawsuit, once an Alexa device is activated, it can hear and record others via other Alexa devices — even those that are not located within the same home. Alexa is one of the more prominent examples of surveillance capitalism at work in the home, but it’s not the only one.

Fitness trackers are becoming key sources of data for health companies. Smart watches collect information on everything from how well you sleep at night to where you shop to how well you manage your finances. Even toys have become fair game for marketers, with toys such as Hello Barbie, Hot Wheels id and Osmo requiring some sort of access to a camera, microphone, Wi-Fi or all three.

 

Legit or not?

At face value, data harvesting may seem illegal — and it would be, if companies didn’t have permission to access your data. The problem with most sites, apps and devices these days is that they finagle permission out of you (often without you knowing it). Common tactics include:

  • Employing the “Roach Motel” approach, which involves making users assume they have no choice but to grant permission if they want to access the content
  • Creating time pressure on items in carts
  • Creating a sense of high demand and low availability to encourage quick action
  • Using scare tactics, such as telling users if they don’t take “X” action, “Y and Z” will happen to them

You have probably fallen for these tactics many times, which is why you are the recipient of targeted ads and hundreds of email newsletters, text messages, phone calls and more.

 

Can I reduce my surveillance footprint?

While these forms of data gathering are concerning – even disturbing – the good news is that you can reduce your surveillance capitalism footprint while interacting with your favorite brands.

How? Use a single platform to manage your brand communications.

Through NotifyMe, you can subscribe directly to content creators via a single, secured platform that protects your data from interested third parties.  You continue to receive the content you desire but in a more streamlined way, and with peace of mind that your personal data remains just that – personal. If that sounds good to you, learn more about NotifyMe and its unique features – or better still, give it a try for 60 days.

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