Are we living in a surveillance state?

In the world of digital advertising we love to talk about data. 1st party, 3rd party, geographic, demographic, user behaviour, purchase behaviour the list goes on. If it’s a data point related to an individual, we want it, and we want to use it for targeting our advertising.

And nowhere is this thirst for data more apparent than in the world of programmatic advertising and technology.  One of the core drivers of the growth of programmatic buying has been the ability to overlay data onto your decision making.

And with GDPR just around the corner, and still a lack of clarity on to its impact on the advertising industry, you will be hearing a lot more about data in the coming months. Specifically, around what does and doesn’t constitute personally identifiable information (PII).

Whether data collected qualifies as PII aside, when it comes to location-based data, I have been mulling the question recently as to where the line is between data collection and surveillance.

The video below started the thought process. Fox news ran an experiment to see just how much location data Google was collecting via their Android OS and related devices. Taking two mobile phones on a trip around town, both with data disabled and no Internet capability, they monitored the activity once the devices reconnected to the Internet. I highly recommend you spend a few minutes watching

Within seconds of reconnecting to the Internet both devices transmitted precise location data about where the device had been, how it had travelled, and how long it was in each location. Despite them both being disconnected as they were in transit.

And of course, Google is an advertising company. So, this information will be pooled with other data it has on the individual and packaged up as part of their advertising offering.

There is of course no suggestion that Google is doing anything untoward, or outside of the terms that users agree to. But does monitoring mobile users in such a way constitute more than just acceptable data collection?

What classifies as surveillance?

The term surveillance is commonly associated with crime or police work. Closely monitoring an individual to record incriminating evidence on their behaviour which could be used to prevent crime or secure conviction.

But surveillance itself is not solely linked to criminal investigations. A definition from goes as follows:

continuous observation of a place, person, group, or ongoing activity in order to gather information

Key words in this definition being continuous, and information.

I think most people accept to some degree that their online behaviour is being monitored, albeit it in an anonymous sense. We have all seen retargeting ads for products we have viewed. We all get recommended products based on our behaviour.  But I think we all assume we can disconnect from this when we are away from an Internet connection.

But what this demonstrates is that Google, amongst others, are now taking this monitoring and data collection beyond simply our lives on the Internet.  It is certainly continuous, and it is apparently outside of an individuals control. That to me would classify as surveillance.

Do we need to accept a surveillance state?

Faced with this technology, capability, and availability to advertisers, is it even possible for us to disconnect? Or do we now need to accept that if we want access to the best technology, it costs us our privacy?

We all want the latest technological advances at our finger tips. So, is this the inevitable price we must pay?

I don’t have the answers, just a lot more questions. And an uneasy feeling that I am being watched.

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