Whether we like it or not, as tech users we live in a world with an Orwellian subtext, where every crumb becomes a cookie, and the sum of our crumbs bakes the big data cake. The data we leave behind daily from our digital interactions serves to broaden the far-reaching impact of big tech in shaping our online behaviours and preferences.
The pervasiveness of large technology firms in our daily routines is undeniable, and the surveillance economy has resulted in the intrinsic value of personal data being transcended, as it becomes a potent tool employed by tech giants and covert actors alike.
How we feed the data machine
Surveillance has crept into every aspect of our lives. We divulge data throughout the day and even through the night. Our smartwatches monitor and track our sleep patterns. When we wake, we reach for our phones. As we power on our smart TVs and pause them to attend a phone call, our TVs remain muted while displaying background visuals. We don’t stop to consider that automatic content recognition technology is enabling our smart TVs to gather information about our rhythms and preferences, subsequently transmitting this data to the TV manufacturer, third-party entities, or both.
We use digital assistants throughout the day for tasks such as setting timers, playing music, speaking to friends, or requesting information. They use voice-activated technology that continuously listens for specific “wake words,” implying a constant state of auditory surveillance. We rarely review the privacy policies concerning our smart TVs and digital assistants to check how our data is being used, and which parties it is being shared with.
Browsing through social media for a quick dopamine rush or to check emails, especially those from preferred brands, may seem innocuous. But almost everything we do on social media gets tracked: our digital activity leaves a trail of virtual breadcrumbs, with tech companies capturing and piecing together our behaviours, preferences, and susceptibilities. As well as our browsing behaviour (from the things we write and decide to delete before posting, to the content we browse and the profiles and photos we like and follow), email use is also subject to data collection, with 70% of commercial emails and nearly 40% of all emails containing tracking elements. Opening these emails enables third parties to monitor our online activity, establishing our identity across various devices.
EU privacy law, in particular GDPR, has aimed to address this and help to protect our data. To comply with EU privacy law, major social media platforms Facebook and Instagram introduced an ad-free option in November 2023, exclusive to European users who subscribe to a €10-per-month plan. Opting out of the ad-free subscription implies consenting to data-sharing and exposure to advertisements, and consequently, those unable to afford the subscription find their data subject to collection. This raises the question of whether the system fosters an inequitable scenario that could widen digital divides and awareness.
How big tech drives the surveillance economy
The surveillance economy is a complex ecosystem where our personal data is commodified and used to cross-influence and reinforce our actions and decisions. It constitutes the consolidation of data collection and analysis, and its application for economic gain, often at the expense of individual privacy and autonomy. This economy thrives on the meticulous tracking of our online behaviours to craft hyper-personalised experiences – shaping, re-shaping and echoing our digital landscape.
Central to the surveillance economy is the data cookie, a minuscule parcel of data stored on a user’s device by websites, collecting information on their preferences and activities. With each crumb shaping our digital persona, this unassuming digital fragment contributes hugely to the highly-tailored, personalised experiences we encounter online.
The power of big tech lies in its clever handling of our data to curate our online experiences. Algorithms, finely calibrated to align with our inclinations, generate tailored content that not only captivates our attention, but also fuels the economic engine of the tech giants, their advertisers and sponsors. Whether it’s through targeted advertisements, or online content responding to patterns in our browsing and purchasing behaviour, big tech can steer us towards actions we might not have otherwise undertaken, virtual news loops that reinforce our beliefs, and sentiment echo chambers where we hear opinions that largely mirror our own.
Protecting our data – and ourselves
But while these tactics can narrow our field of vision and reduce our exposure to a wide range of voices and opinions, they are relatively benign compared to some of the darker facets of the surveillance economy by which personal data is exploited. In the worst cases, the commercialisation of our digital lives can facilitate privacy breaches and data exploitation, leading to serious consequences such as identity theft and privacy rights erosion.
One way that data can be weaponised is in the deliberate dissemination of false information and propaganda. Armed with insights gleaned from our digital footprints, nefarious actors can orchestrate campaigns, often centred on social media platforms, to manipulate public opinion. Such activity has the potential to sway elections, incite upheavals, fuel conflicts, and sow discord among communities.
The good news is that within this digital landscape, we retain some agency. We can determine how we engage with technology, the degree of influence we permit it to exert on our lives, and crucially, how we manage its impact. Increasingly, we are demanding robust data protection measures, ethical data practices, and transparent algorithms to safeguard our digital identities. Legislation and regulation both play a huge role in protecting us, balancing the advantages we receive from technological advancements with ethical and safety considerations, and ensuring big tech acts responsibly.
Defending the right to privacy
The phrase “every crumb becomes a cookie” encapsulates the substantial impact of, and intricate challenges within, the surveillance economy. The importance of privacy – legislated and self-maintained – in the digital age cannot be overstated. It serves as a cornerstone of individual autonomy, enabling us to maintain control of our personal information, decisions, and interactions.
Privacy is an essential safeguard against manipulation in an age when big tech influences our behaviours, preferences, and online interactions. It empowers us to navigate the digital realm while preserving our autonomy and integrity. The misuse of personal data, the subtle influence of tailored content, and the propagation of misinformation, all demand a conscious response from individuals, tech giants, and governments, who must work together to ensure we can all benefit from the digital world in safety.