What Is “Surveillance Capitalism?” And How Did It Hijack the Internet?


Shoshana Zuboff's new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism goes into gory details of how companies collect, use, buy and sell your data for profit, often without consent or even the consumer knowing it was happening, until disasters reveal some of the dark underbelly—like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But, I’m a marketer, so I will focus on the subset of “surveillance marketing”—also known as “digital marketing”—where companies profit off of you, because they are set up to do so. Digital ad-tech companies were built to extract as much value as possible from the trust transaction that used to be the user going to a publisher’s site that carries an advertiser’s ad.

Surveillance Marketing Was Built on the Foundation of Three Myths

Digital marketing as we know it today can be traced all the way back to Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, published in 2006. Before that, digital media was primarily purchased from large sites that had large human audiences. The Long Tail promulgated the idea that collectively a large number of small sites could rival the scale of a small number of large sites. This simple premise alone led digital marketing down a dark and dangerous path to the hell we now know is surveillance marketing. But most marketers don’t even know they are in this hell. They were looking for scale in digital—and they got it. They were looking for data in digital—and they got it. And, they were looking for more granular targeting in digital—and they got it. But how?

Herein lies the three myths: 1) the long tail, 2) behavioral targeting and 3) hypertargeting.

The Myth of the Long Tail