I recently purchased a bedroom bundle (mattress, bed base, pillows and sheets) from a well known Australian startup for my son, who has flown the nest. Now I’m swamped with Google and Facebook ads for beds and bedding. The week before it was puffer jackets.

Ever wonder why and the way this happens? The answer is surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism describes a market driven process where the commodity on the market is your personal data, and the capture and production of this data relies on mass surveillance of the web. This activity is usually carried out by firms that provide us with free online services, similar to serps (Google) and social media platforms (Facebook).

These firms collect and scrutinise our online behaviours (likes, dislikes, searches, social networks, purchases) to supply data that may be further used for industrial purposes. And it’s often kept away from us understanding the total extent of the surveillance.

The term surveillance capitalism was coined by academic Shoshana Zuboff in 2014. She suggests that surveillance capitalism will depend on:

…the worldwide architecture of computer mediation […] [which] produces a distributed and mostly uncontested latest expression of power that I christen: “Big Other”.

The big data economy

The late twentieth century has seen our economy move away from mass production lines in factories to grow to be progressively more reliant on knowledge. Surveillance capitalism, however, uses a business model based on the digital world, and is reliant on “big data” to earn money.

The data utilized in this process is usually collected from the identical groups of people that will ultimately be its targets. For instance, Google collects personal online data to focus on us with ads, and Facebook is probably going selling our data to organisations who want us to vote for them or to vaccinate our babies.

Third-party data brokers, versus firms that hold the info like Google or Facebook, are also on-selling our data. These firms buy data from quite a lot of sources, collate details about individuals or groups of people, then sell it.

Smaller firms are also cashing in on this. Last 12 months, HealthEngine, a medical appointment booking app, was found to be sharing clients’ personal information with Perth lawyers particularly occupied with workplace injuries or vehicle accidents.

Cambridge Analytica was a wake-up call

Last 12 months’s Cambridge Analytica revelations highlighted the extent to which web firms surveil online activity. Cambridge Analytica’s actions broke Facebook’s own rules by collecting and on-selling data under the pretence of educational research. Their dealings can have violated election law within the United States.

Despite the questionable nature of Cambridge Analytics’ actions, the larger players and leading actors in surveillance capitalism, Facebook and Google, are still legally amassing as much information as they will. That includes details about their users, their users’ online friends, and even their users’ offline friends (often called shadow profiling). A shadow profile is a profile created about someone who hasn’t signed as much as particular social platform, but might need some data stored about them because they’ve interacted with someone who has. Platforms make huge profits from this.

In this sense, Cambridge Analytica was a small player in the large data economy.

Where surveillance capitalism got here from

Surveillance capitalism practices were first consolidated at Google. They used data extraction procedures and packaged users’ data to create latest markets for this commodity.

Currently, the most important “Big Other” actors are Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Together, they collect and control unparalleled quantities of knowledge about our behaviours, which they turn into services and products.

This has resulted in astonishing business growth for these firms. Indeed, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Apple and Facebook at the moment are ranked within the top six of the world’s biggest firms by market capitalisation.

Google, for example, processes a median of 40,000 searches per second, 3.5 billion per day and 1.2 trillion per 12 months. Its parent company, Alphabet, was recently valued at US$822 billion.

Sources of knowledge are increasing

Newly available data sources have dramatically increased the amount and variety of knowledge available. Our expanding sensor-based society now includes wearables, smart home devices, drones, connected toys and automatic travel. Sensors similar to microphones, cameras, accelerometers, and temperature and motion sensors add to an ever expanding list of our activities (data) that may be collected and commodified.

Commonly used wearables like smart watches and fitness trackers, for instance, have gotten a part of on a regular basis health care practices. Our activities and biometric data may be stored and used to interpret our health and fitness status.


This same data is of great value to medical insurance providers. In the US, some insurance providers require a knowledge feed from the policyholder’s device in an effort to qualify for insurance cover.

Connected toys are one other rapidly growing market area of interest related to surveillance capitalism. There are educational advantages from children twiddling with these toys, in addition to the potential for drawing children away from screens towards more physical, interactive and social play. But major data breaches around these toys have already occurred, marking childrens’ data as one other precious commodity.

In her latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zubboff suggests that our emerging sensor based society will make surveillance capitalism more embedded and pervasive in our lives.

This article was originally published at theconversation.com