Ubiquitous Surveillance and the Profit Motive

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the commodification of our daily activities, especially online activities.  The cycle of ‘Facebook Privacy’ scandals continue, and most of us (myself included) opt to keep letting Facebook and Google build models of our interests, behaviors, social relationships, employment activities and everything else that crosses our minds while we use computers.

It isn’t much of a stretch to say that Google and Facebook know a lot about us.  They are corporations, and as such seek profit.  Not in itself a bad thing, I own a corporation myself, and have partial ownership of a few others (all small, but the point remains). Where they see opportunity they will pursue it, in fact they are legally obliged to do so.

In the process of setting up an online business elsewhere, I have been wandering around behind the curtain of this customer tracking and targeting data system, specifically Google’s ad and marketing infrastructure.  As a businessperson and writer I am impressed at the ability to target ad campaigns at specific neighborhoods, demographics, interests and goals.  I am also in awe of the ability Google has to track a customer from clicking on an ad through purchasing, and give sellers feedback about what is working.

All well and good, in some respects.  A business is most efficient when it isn’t wasting money advertising to people who are not interested in their products.  Businesses that were too micro-niche to survive a few years ago can now thrive.  Prices are lower, everyone wins.  Business models are possible now that were beyond imagination even 20 years ago, and innovation is proceeding furiously along (outside of Wall Street, which is not a place for innovation so much as creative system hacking).

However, privacy advocates and civil liberties defenders are very understandably concerned.  If a corporation knows that I like science fiction, I don’t suppose it matters much unless they are trying to sell me science fiction novels (not a tough sell).  If a government knows my tastes, that might concern me more – if a book I like is contraband, or a perceived indication of criminal intent.

Where my concerns escalate is when my data is refined into models that effect the availability of certain services.  If I lived in the U.S. I would be very concerned about my occasional curiosity about extreme sports or greasy food might have an impact on my insurance rates and eligibility.  Perhaps some of my cousins or friends have criminal tendencies (I have a great many cousins, so while I know of nothing untoward probability suggests somebody is up to something illegal), and their socially networked connections to me might degrade my eligibility for loans or travel.  Being a relative of a ‘bad person’ is certainly enough to put you in serious jeopardy in other parts of the world.

A further degree of alarm arises with concepts like privatized prison and parole corporations using ubiquitous surveillance to manage their bottom line.  The two best ways to improve profits are to increase sales or decrease costs.  Any SF aware reader can imagine how those motivations might cause trouble with a profit-oriented prison system.  If a prisoner is profitable, the goal might be to get more prisoners – not exactly what a healthy society might see as a good goal.

Matt Stoller writes a very good article over at Naked Capitalism about the growing privacy and moral hazards of our budding ubiquitous surveillance society.

The main theme of a recent IBM consulting document on the future of the insurance industry is how much more money an insurance company can make if it tracks and tags its customers. This is particularly true for auto insurance companies, some of whom like Allstate and Progressive are experimenting on new technologies. For instance, IBM suggests that “A “pay-as-you-live” product would trade some location and time-of-day privacy data for lower insurance bills overall.”

 

Of course, the innocent have nothing to fear, and those of us with relatively legal and healthy habits would probably save money.  But even with ubiquitous surveillance, the data can be wrong and people unfairly labelled.  Science fiction is full of thoughtful explorations of this concept, from Minority Report to Brazil to Accelerando.  The moral hazard for a corporation faced with an opportunity to increase profits by invading privacy is significant.  Most of us would probably volunteer for the lower rates in exchange for surveillance, and those of us who might resist will find ourselves on the margins.

This all sounds like the seeds of a very good SF novel.

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