Brands and ‘surveillance capitalism’

With companies capturing information on everything from how we sleep to what we feel, it’s easier than ever for brands to overstep the line with our personal data. Are we sleepwalking into a disaster, or can companies embrace a more ethical use of our information?

Many of us will be familiar with a creeping sense that our personal information is no longer our own. We might shrug it off, but deep down we know that Google and Facebook are watching our every move and storing up banks of data about who we are, and what we might be interested in. Billboards in airports are working out our gender and age, and serving us relevant ads, and iPhone apps and wearable devices mean we can track information about our fitness, our periods, our sleep patterns, and any number of daily activities. But all this also means we’re feeding that information back to the company at the other end of the device.

In a recent radio interview Shoshana Zuboff – author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – painted a worrying picture. She described how surveillance capitalism is claiming private human experience for the marketplace, using it as “free raw material for a new kind of production process”. For Zuboff this goes beyond what we post on Facebook. It extends to how the muscles in our faces betray our emotional state, the way we walk, what we talk about in our homes, and even how we sleep at night. She sees a future where huge banks of behavioural data are used to create predictive patterns, which would be sold in a new marketplace – the behaviour futures market.

“The economic imperative is to get as much data as possible,” she says. “So every one of these things is a supply chain interface for these huge pipelines of data flow.”

In many cases these huge pipelines are being built by users themselves, who are co-opted into sharing their data with confusing terms and conditions that we either don’t fully understand, or are too lazy to read properly. For some people working in the creative industry, the future is bleak.