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Profiling Machines Summary

Find out what private data marketers collect about you, and how, and why, and what you can do about it (not much).

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Consumers are increasingly asked their opinion on every imaginable question. Consumer feedback technologies are everywhere. Yet few analyze the impact of consumer feedback on the culture. Sweepstakes, entry forms, online enrollment forms, discount cards with bar codes, consumer surveys, rebate forms, contest entries, online memberships , all these and more demonstrate the creative, continual push toward finding out exactly what consumers think. Still, scant literature exists on the impact of consumer feedback technologies.

The term “surveillance” hardly seems adequate to describe the interactive technologies that systematically ask consumers to reveal their opinions and their personal information. Profiles Collecting consumer profiles requires getting people to divulge personal information. These profiles depict consumer likes, dislikes and tendencies. In many cases, gathering this information is automated within the general consumer activities of purchasing goods, commissioning services or consuming media. Profiling provokes several serious social concerns.

Consumer information can be stolen and used in identify theft. People may be offered products tailored to their tastes based on their profiles, making it more difficult to decline disadvantageous offers. The rewards offered to spur sales (free magazine subscriptions, free T-shirts for signing up and such), may give way to punishments later. These might include automatic bank account withdrawals or credit card charges below the consumer’s radar screen, like automatic subscription renewals. This affects consumers via junk e-mail, phone solicitations and even compromised credit ratings. Profiling focuses on collecting, processing, storing, analyzing, networking and eventually distributing demographic, psychological and behavioral information.

This systematic cataloguing of information covers the desires and habits of individuals and groups. For example, American political pollsters who wanted to target suburban swing voters invented the term “soccer mom.” Such profiling leaks from politics into minivan commercials, and then influences television news coverage and sooner or later affects the culture at large. Aware consumers wonder how niche markets are identified and targeted.
Why do producers fail to capture some audiences or markets? How far can profiles be pushed to predict consumer behavior or forecast general social trends that shape buyer decisions? And what privacy rights do you have as society’s quest for surveillance data grows more pervasive? Panoptic Surveillance Panoptic means “all-seeing”.
Today, consumer actions are tracked with meticulous precision, thanks to barcodes, credit and debit cards, and computer databases. Someone somewhere knows what you buy and when, what you pay for it and even when you return it. Your transactions are noted, stored, analyzed and processed, and the data is sold and distributed.

Panoptic surveillance, a sort of continuous, all- pervasive observation, dates back to seventeenth century architectural plans for an all- seeing prison, devised by Jeremy Bentham. Dubbing the jail a “panopticon,” he envisioned prisoners living around a central watchtower that continually observed them.

In 1977, Michel Foucault wrote an influential analysis of the panoptic prison in a review that made a tremendous theoretical impact. Today’s interpretations of the panoptic model focus on three aspects. Architectural and theoretical elements of surveillance , This theory tends to transfer ideas originally applied to prison surveillance to general consumer observation and data gathering. The general goal with prisoners was to gain control over a group’s behavior through careful observation.

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