Surveillance Capitalism: How Companies Profit off of Your Digital Footprint

by Andrea Traietti on February 27, 2020


Companies can now collect data from your digital footprint to determine your interests and even your mood in order to target your social media with certain advertisements. Nora Johnson ’20/The Cowl.


by Katie Belbusti ’22

Opinion Staff

Surveillance capitalism is a term that has been increasingly used within the past decade. While it sounds like a complicated term, its definition is the collection of data through monitoring people’s behaviors on social media for the benefit of corporations to then tailor their advertisements to make more money.

Most of us are aware of the fact that our phones listen to us and keep tabs on what we are doing at any given time, but surveillance capitalism goes further: it exploits patterns on social media to create marketing strategies and advertisements to target consumers for economic profit.

As data surveillance programs continue to evolve in this manner, it is imperative that technology users are aware of their data footprint and their right to online privacy.

Dr. Matthew Guardino, a political science professor at Providence College, provided more insight on the role of surveillance capitalism in our lives. His general area of research is about media in politics, with a focus on how media corporations can shape the news. The topic of surveillance capitalism is one of great interest to Dr. Guardino, especially when connected with how it is increasingly affecting younger generations. 

Regarding what is most important for millennials to know about surveillance capitalism, Dr. Guardino said, “It is very important to understand the outset, virtually anything any of us do online is recorded. It is recorded primarily, although not entirely, for corporations to make money. The vast majority of this kind of surveillance occurs without public knowledge and without us even having a sense that it is going on. It is important to understand that pretty much the entire internet runs on a financial basis: surveilling and then collecting people’s data.” When put into these simple terms, it is clear to see why this issue is becoming increasingly more concerning.

To convey the full extent of how companies such as Facebook use surveillance to monitor us, distinguished author Shoshana Zuboff recently wrote an article for the New York Times. Cited are a group of Facebook executives who claimed, “Facebook can work out when young people feel ‘stressed,’ ‘defeated,’ ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘nervous,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘silly,’ ‘useless’ and a ‘failure.’”

Zuboff explains that this information “allows Facebook to pinpoint the time frame during which a young person needs a ‘confidence boost’ and is most vulnerable to a specific configuration of subliminal cues and triggers. The data is then used to match each emotional phase with appropriate ad messaging for the maximum probability of guaranteed sales.”

Technology has advanced to the point that companies can now learn our moods based on the things we look at on social media. To address the situation of this technology infringing more on our personal privacies, Dr. Guardino recommends a key piece of advice for technology-users: “The first thing, no matter what, is to become as informed as possible about the situation.

That includes taking some time to read up from credible sources on how this works and what actually happens to the data collected.” It is extremely important to be correctly informed about the situation, as it is something that affects all of us, with or without our prior knowledge of it. 

In an attempt to produce change, Dr. Guardino states, “In the short-term, if what you find out worries you or concerns you, there are practical things that people can do to lessen their data footprint. On a longer-term basis to the extent that people are worried about the ethics and moral or social implications—of which there are many—the only way that I would argue long-term change is by getting politically involved, organizing and mobilizing to push for changes in public policy that will regulate how data is collected and what happens to it once collected.”

While the knowledge of this information seems daunting and overwhelming, it is essential to remember that we have a say in this matter. If we make an effort to learn more and collectively take a stand against corporations exploiting our privacy by taking political action, we can begin to get back to a more privacy-respecting world.