This page considers consumer and audience monitoring,
surveillance that is often more persuasive and restrictive
than observation by the state.
It covers -
supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
audience measurement, marketing, credit referencing, online
metrics and opinion polling.
For better or for worse, advanced economies are founded
on private sector identification of what people are doing
(or say they are doing) and what they have done, with
that surveillance providing a basis for inferences about
what people will do in future and for decisions on matters
such as access to credit and employment vetting that determine
Some tracking (such as credit referencing) is specific
to the individual and in practice represents the dominant
form of surveillance of most individuals. Other tracking
uses samples of the population as surrogates for monitoring
the tastes and activities of individuals, with conclusions
for example about who is watching particular television
programs, listening to a specific radio station, planning
to vote for a certain politician or buying a particular
Some surveillance may be immediate and overt, with individuals
being required to provide hair and urine samples or to
accept keystroke logging and closed circuit television
observation as a condition of employment. Other surveillance
may be less readily discernable, with individuals being
unaware of what information is being aggregated, what
entities are performing that aggregation and how the resultant
profiles are being traded.
The outcome of some private sector monitoring is ultimately
trivial - the success of a particular brand of cat litter
or aerated water is of fundamental importance to MBA students
and ad campaign managers rather than the real world -
but practices such as poll-driven public policy development
suggest that some surveillance is 'meaningful'.
The discussion of privacy elsewhere on this site criticised
some of the more naive and fervent rhetoric in Australian
and overseas debate, which offers a simplistic characterisation
of a polar relationship between a repressive 'surveillance
state' and the community (or individual). Reality is more
complex, with shades of assent and awareness regarding
a surveillance ecosystem that features a wide range of
relationships across the public and private sectors. Some
relationships are highlighted below as points of entry
to more detailed discussion elsewhere on this site.
The borders between private and official surveillance
have blurred, with governments for example acquiring information
from business enterprises and commercial data brokers
aggregating public sector information in building profiles
about individuals or demographics.
Publishers, film producers, broadcasters and advertisers
have traditionally been interested in what people are
reading, watching or listening to.
That interest reflects prediction of future markets (publishers,
for example, generally operate on a commercial basis and
are reluctant to consistently produce works that do not
It also reflects comparisons between competing venues,
with advertisers for example being charged different rates
depending on newspaper circulation figures, the exposure
of billboards (those next to busy roads typically attract
a premium relative to boards without much traffic) or
the demographic attracted to a particular broadcast.
It has resulted in the growth of a range of audience metrics
specialists, from circulation audit bureaus (how many
titles sold) to enterprises offering data about what percentage
of the radio audience listened to a specific soap opera
and thus was likely to encounter a particular advertisement.
Mechanisms for identification of audiences (and for determination
of responses) at an aggregate and individual level are
products and services
A discussion of consumer market research is here.
A discussion of UGI rating sites is here.
Much information is collected by nongovernment organisations
(and often provided to third parties) because it is volunteered
by individuals or provided in connection with a product
Some consumers, for example, provide marketers with address
and other details by entering competitions - ie giving
their data to the marketer in exchange for a mere opportunity
to win a prize. Such data collection is evident in many
Australian retail malls, where passers by are encouraged
to stop at a booth and enter the competition. As noted
elsewhre on this site, the consumer has no awareness of
who will receive the information and how it will be used.
Retailers and other organisations collect and frequently
sell customer data, which often extends beyond basic contact
details to include demographic information and of course
may be enhanced through integration with other data sets.
Sale of mailing lists (for example those promoted to consumers
as the basis of special offers, newsletters and catalogues)
or 'loyalty program'
lists is a substantial business, one that is a key element
of the information broking (aka data trading) discussed
in more detail elsewhere on this site.
A point of entry to the marketing literature is Joseph
Turow's Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the
Digital Age (Cambridge: MIT Press 2006)
Are private sector entities aware of what calls you are
making, how many emails you are sending/receiving, whether
you are downloading particular formats of data online
or what sites you are visiting?
C. Wright Mills' 1951 White Collar echoed Max
Weber in commenting that
skyscrapers replace rows of small shops, so offices
replace free markets. Each office within the skyscraper
is a segment of the enormous file, a part of the symbol
factory that produces the billion slips of paper that
gear modern society into its daily shape.
of that shaping involves collection of information that
is used to assess the credit-worthiness of individuals
and businesses or as a basis for decisions regarding provision
of insurance, accommodation and other goods. Those decisions
may be expressed as tenancy or other blacklists.
As noted in the more detailed discussion
of consumer credit referencing and blacklisting, such
data collection is pervasive - most people in advanced
economies have been profiled by the major reference services
- and may have a more fundamental effect on the lives
of individuals than ordinary surveillance by government
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