Big Data and Surveillance: Hype, Commercial Logics and New Intimate Spheres

Blog Big Data & Society 7(1)

Kirstie Ball and William Webster

Big Data Surveillance: Competing Logics

When viewed through a surveillance studies lens Big Data is instantly problematic. In comparison with its predecessors, and by virtue of its pre-emptive impulses and intimate data flows, Big Data creates a more penetrating gaze into consumers’ and service users’ lives. As Big Data draws on data streams from social and online media, as well as personal devices designed to share data, consumers have limited opportunities to opt out of data sharing, as well as difficulty in finding out what happens to their data once it is shared. In the Big Data era, consumers and service users exert comparatively less control over their personal information flows and their mundane consumption activities become highly significant and subject to scrutiny. Their subjection to the social sorting which results from the classification of those data is comparatively intensified and commercialised. Those companies who are in a position to exploit the value created by Big Data Analytics (BDA) enjoy powerful market positions.

Consequently, greater attention needs to be placed on corporate and other actors which bring surveillance practices like BDA into being. BDA as practiced predominantly takes place in organizational settings. Addressing the mid-range of BDA - the mesh of organizations which mediate between the end consumer, the organisational and societal context, and the marketer of products - reveals how the influence and power of BDA is far from a done deal. The commercial logics which drive BDA implementation are seated in promises of seamless improvements in operational efficiency and more accurate decision-making arising directly from the use of analytics. As a marketing practice, for example, BDA seek to create value from an extensive array of new data-generating sources used by consumers. The aim is to produce new insight into consumer behaviours so that they can be better targeted by marketers in real time and that their intentions can be predicted with a greater degree of accuracy However, the realisation of this ‘value’ is highly contingent. Personnel management, technology infrastructure, organizational culture, skills, and management capability are all identified as crucial components and impact on the value generated. The sheer socio-technical range and interdependency of these internal variables highlight the two issues with which this special themed issue of Big Data and Society is concerned.

The first concerns the power relations and political dynamics of BDA implementation. Adopting, enacting and complying with the demands of BDA strategies involves a rethinking of roles, relationships and identities on the part of those involved in the transformation. Significant pressure and hype has been brought to bear on non-technical organizational constituencies, such as marketers, who have been challenged by the implications of BDA and are required to reconcile their creative, qualitative approaches with an analytical world- view. Similarly, in a public service context, managers are increasingly being required to base their policy and operational decisions on new information flows embedded in BDA. They are finding that these novel technologically intensive processes are conflicting with traditional long-established norms and organisational decision-making structures.

The second concerns how practices associated with BDA extend surveillance into the intimate sphere. The surveillance practices embedded in Big Data are typically seen as commercial processes and another facet of operational efficiency and value creation. Such data can be subtle, highly nuanced and very personal. It can be collected from the home and can include information gathered within intimate, domestic spaces. Ethical concerns are recognised by practitioners, although they are still couched within a value discourse - and a robust ethics committee can ‘allow’ and ‘oversee’ the collection of such data.

Big Data succeeds in extending the scope of surveillance by co-opting individuals into the de facto surveillance of their own private lives. Through the increasingly embedded role of online social networks and location sensitive mobile devices in social activities, the boundaries between surveillance and the surveilled subject become blurred. Big Data breaks down boundaries between different sources of data, thus allowing the combination of information from different social domains. In democracies, with clearer legal protections of the line between public and private, Big Data extends existing surveillance technologies in its ability to co-opt the key economic actors - the corporations - and thus gain a window into private lives. Big data practices are also allowing powerful commercial corporations greater access to the machinery of government and public services in that they are being increasingly influential in policy-making and service delivery, as well as getting greater access to data deriving from these organisational entitles. The levels of ubiquity in terms of data collection, previously only available in tightly controlled political environments, are therefore now available universally.

A brief guide to the special theme of Big Data & Society
This theme features six articles, all of which contextualise Big Data hype within and at times counter to business and organisational logics. They explore how BDA extends surveillance across more intimate boundaries highlighting: the emotional registers of consumer; home automation and household surveillance; and the surveillance and commercialisation of children via ‘Hello Barbie’. They also examine how Big Data practices are produced, reflecting the argument that the enactment of surveillant power using BDA is not a certainty but a negotiated organisational process. This theme addresses a gap in critical scholarship on Big Data, as it explores the links between Big Data, its organisational and commercial contexts and increasing levels of intimate surveillance. The articles illustrate how business and organisational practices shape and are shaped by BDA and how the producers and consumers of Big Data are forging new intimate and intensive surveillance relationships. BDA is not as revolutionary as sometimes suggested by vocal advocates. Its implementation and use is embedded within, and shaped by, powerful institutional norms and processes- and when seen in retrospect the development of BDA is clearly an incremental path dependent process.

This special theme is drawn from contributions made to a research workshop entitled ‘New Lines of (In)sight: Big Data Surveillance and the Analytically Driven Organization’ held at the University of Stirling in June 2018. This invitation-only workshop was a curated encounter between surveillance, communications and business scholars and was co-hosted by the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) at the Universities of St Andrews and Stirling (UK) and the Surveillance Studies Centre, Canada. It was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership grant ‘Big Data Surveillance’. The partnership project aims to understand the link between surveillance and Big Data in three inter-related areas: security, marketing and governance. The work presented in this special theme examines marketing and other managerial applications of Big Data.

Editorial, Big Data & Society 7(1), available here.
DOI: 10.1177/2053951720925853

Further information about the Big Data Surveillance Workshop is available here.

Further information about the Big Data Surveillance Partnership Project is available here.