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Big Questions About Big Data, Privacy, and Surveillance Capitalism

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington

A combination of technologies from personal health devices to wearable cameras and microphones are now allowing us to record every aspect of our lives and making us part of the “Internet of Humans”. This ‘quantification and documentation of self’ opens up massive new potential for individually tailored offerings, personalised healthcare, surveillance, and immense opportunities for those who seek to hack our data for nefarious purposes. What might the commercial attractiveness of exploiting the growing goldmine of consumer data mean for the future of privacy and consumer rights?

Growing Tension Over Who Owns Our Data(1)

The big data revolution makes it feasible to identify new niche demographic segments that share common motivations and interests and to target them and test their response to tailored offers. In response, there is a growing movement among technologists and consumers to give individuals more control over data. This may prove a challenge to existing industry “surveillance capitalism” models, where the emphasis is on deepening individual customer insight and leveraging it to sell additional products and services. Similarly, free consumer data is the lifeblood of many popular online services and programs, particularly social media and mobile applications. Many of these might struggle to survive if they had to charge for everything and were not able to exploit customer data.

Growing Understanding of – and Pushback to – Surveillance Capitalism

An increasingly intense spotlight is being placed on the surveillance capitalism practices of the “frightful five”(2) (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet—the parent company of Google) and other major digital players. The sheer scale of the revenues generated from customer data is gradually coming to light. The concern is that that these firms’ data exploitation tactics reek of Big Brother and abuse consumer trust for profit – which could in turn drive more intense regulation and potentially even lead to the breakup of these “too big to regulate” entities.

Internet Privacy is a Fantasy, Will Merely be a ‘Fetish’ by 2025? (3)

Experts at the Pew Research Foundation believe that the pace of technological development will far outstrip our capacity to monitor and regulate those involved. This gives rise to the notion that any expectation of online privacy will become completely unrealistic.

Rise of the Dark Web: Dark Data Comes to Light (4)

There is a growing understanding of the scale of the so-called “deep internet” and the “dark web” that sits within it. Some estimate that the scale of the deep internet is over 500 times larger than the public internet.(5) Businesses are already rumoured to be accessing data on the dark web for corporate intelligence and customer marketing purposes. Slightly less sinister is the growing use of “dark marketing strategies” – with highly personalised adverts used on social media to target specific content to individuals – unseen by others. Up to 90% of ads on Twitter are now reported to take this format.(6)

Is Data Exploitation the New Social Contract?

As we look to the future, how might things play out, particularly in a world where technological employment precedes the creation of new job opportunities and notions such as guaranteed basic incomes and services become part of the mix? In return for access to a range of goods, services, and guaranteed basic incomes, individuals might feel they must waive the right to privacy, with all individual and corporate data effectively being owned by the state. However, with data becoming a commodity that represents trillions of dollars of potential value in the form of digital information such as software, websites, algorithms, art, music, videos, images, and cryptocurrencies, is the protection of our privacy too important and valuable to be left to chance? (7)

To overcome the emerging battles for ownership of data, new entities could emerge which manage all data on behalf of citizens and nations. Entities that want to use the data would then pay a license fee to exploit whatever data we the citizens have given permissioned access to. Each individual would determine what happens to the fees received by the data manager for their personal data. This might include charitable donations, direct repayment to the owner, or aggregation and use to purchase discounted goods and services.

Whatever the future for big data, it’s important to bear in mind the level of mass dehumanization possible as a result of putting profits before people. Human rights are slowly morphing with consumer rights, and this is something all organisations should prepare for as a future reality.


This article was published in FutureScapes. To subscribe, click here.

Image: by chaitawat


  1. Accessed 01/04/2019
  2. Accessed 01/04/2019.
  3. Accessed 01/04/2019.
  4. Accessed 01/04/2019.
  5.;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0007.104 Accessed 01/04/2019.
  6. Accessed 01/04/2019.
  7. Accessed 04/01/2019.

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