Era of Corporate Surveillance

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George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four visualized a situation, where a citizen is under the constant surveillance by the State. It keeps a constant watch on the anti-state activities by its citizens. Any perceived or real situation seen to be going against the perceived interest of the state is immediately acted upon. Such conditions continue to prevail in the country with the State continually trying to find out ‘anti-national’ persons and ‘anti-national’ activities.

A situation that was perhaps not visualized was the surveillance by the corporate agencies. With the growth of the ‘market forces’ and continual ‘corporate’ search for potential consumers, a constant track of the citizens is being kept. The linkage of Aadhaar, Bank Account, and Mobile while is being shown as a means to improve efficiency in delivery of welfare services, it on the other hand is creating a means whereby every data related to the private activities of an individual is being made use of by corporate agencies to identify potential consumers and thereby develop marketing strategies.

The contemporary technological process undertaken in the name of digital connectivity is also a means of enhancing market connectivity. Subscribers to Apps, Social media platforms, Email users, online shopping sites also become forums where vital information on their personal interests such as choices for holidaying, spending patterns on clothing and purchase of consumer durables, recreational activities undertaken such as towards food films etc become data points for corporate agencies. Each information related to what we do, who we meet, where we go, when we spend, how we make choices are tracked. Data Science is emerging as a major discipline. The big data also happens to be the Data on the potential consumers, which is sought to be made use of by the corporate agencies.

Social media which emerged as a forum for social networking and sharing of personal information also happens to throw up data for usage by the commercial firms. A number of firms have emerged in the world which mine data available from internet and other sources, analyze the psychological patterns of the consumer and develop advertisements based on the same. Recently there was news that data of NaMo app of the Prime Minister was sold to a company in US. The data was related to email Ids, photos, gender and names of the users. Similarly the news of facebook data being used for commercial purposes is known.

In this data driven forms of strengthening the market, personal lives of humans become data points. The data on individual lives available with apps and social media sites becomes a commercial commodity for sale to Data analysis firms. For the Data analysis firms, this becomes a raw material, which is to be further processed, converted into commodities and handed over to industrial and commercial firms for ready usage. In the whole process, our own personal lives and information related to the same become commodities. On the other hand, this information is further used to push us towards purchase of more commodities and become loyal consumers to corporate companies.

While Orwell was able to rightly predict the dangers of state surveillance, what was missed out was the corporate surveillance. While state surveillance pushes us to become obedient citizens without questioning the ‘state hegemony’, on the other hand ‘corporate surveillance’ pushes us to become a mere ‘consumer’ ever ready to accept the unnecessary products that gets dumped on.

The digital revolution is not a problem by itself but the commercial and market connection attached to it. However, this could also be a means for social transformation. The same data can be used by forces of social change to bring about radical transformation.

 Sridhar Yenamandra is a Post Graduate in Mathematics. He follows Technological issues.

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