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What if it were your data? Surveillance capitalism and professional communicators



Last night I went to a Sydney Ideas public talk on surveillance capitalism. I didn’t know what to expect really but as someone who has worked with data experts and open data advocates in the development sector, I was keen to hear about the latest evidence and insights were in relation to our data and how it is used. 


I hadn’t heard the phrase surveillance capitalism before. I understand the concept of big corporates using my data for commercial gain – and am fully aware of the irony of posting this article on social media platform that collects my data – but the lecturers and panel discussion got me thinking more along the lines of how use of our data impacts our views and opinions.


It actually took me back to a university class I did years ago on whether or not soap operas are shaping our attitudes and behaviours or mirroring them? But I digress.

One of the concepts raised at the talk was surveillance as “social sorting” and how data can be used to put us into consumer “categories” so that we are served up information or options depending on that category; with the view to informing our decision making when it comes to anything ranging from product purchases to political preferences.


I felt a little conflicted at that point as a communications and engagement professional. It is my job to look at stakeholder groups and target specific messaging to those “categories”. I talk about my work being to move people along the change curve and support organisations to work with individuals and groups to find common purpose to enable those shifts. 


Our jobs as communicators is to develop audience appropriate communication and tailor those communications to suit a specific need and bring the audience with you on whatever your engagement aims may be. 


Much of how I do this is using what I know about the stakeholders in any instance. It may be through customer data, community consultations or published research. The point is, however, that I am using data to share information with specific people so that they engage favourably with the chosen subject or issue; something I would socially frown upon when it comes to digital giants doing similar.


Now, with most of my clients having socially conscious outcomes as part of their business model, I’m conservative with how much data is required to do my job and am generally comfortable with the level of personal data accessed. As one of the Professor’s said last night, it needs to be about “integration not extraction” when it comes to data. In my field, I would interpret that as being aware of when you need to work with stakeholders as opposed to simply extracting data, analysing it and taking action independent of those stakeholders.


From working in the mental health and suicide prevention sector, I have also been privileged to hold very personal information about people’s experiences. That has made me even more cognisant of what type of data is held and how this data is used.

As was said in discussion last night, “surveillance is no longer something we simply endure but something we engage in.”

There are so many benefits to technological advancements we enjoy today and a raft of opportunities to use data for good. But, every one of us must continue to challenge this landscape when it comes to our day to day contribution to surveillance and use of other peoples’ data. 


For professional communicators looking at data, here are some questions I would suggest thinking through as you pull together your stakeholder engagement plans.


How do you know what you know about your stakeholders?

Was it ethically sourced? Have you worked with stakeholders to get to a shared understanding or simply mined their data? Have they given permission for data to be used in this way? Are your stakeholder “categories” marginalising already marginalised groups?


What do you intend to do with this data?

Are you using this data for public good or as a commodity? If this is technically an agreed use via ticked terms and conditions can you hand on heart say that the original owner of this data would agree if a discussion took place? Are you using this information for its intended and often single use purpose only or have those lines blurred?


Do you honestly need to hold this depth and breadth of data beyond its original use?

What do you have saved on your systems? What are the security levels when it comes to access? What are the terms and conditions of your software licences? Are you unwittingly providing access to a third party?


Perhaps a more compelling question to ask in all situations may be...

What if it were your data? 

We do not, as one of the speakers said last night, need to give in to “anticipated conformity”.


We do need to ask questions, not only of those who extract our data, but also ourselves - particularly as professional communicators.

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