Spy Commerce


In the shadow of the Second World War, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit, a scathing drama in which three souls are trapped for eternity in a room with no place to hide from one another’s gaze. One protagonist assesses the situation and grimly concludes, “Hell is other people!”

That line has come to represent the struggle for individuality against other people’s ceaseless surveillance. But the world Sartre described has changed. The objects that glimmer in the consumer galaxy have acquired the power to confer identity that once was reserved for people, ideas, and institutions. In the age of Sartre Lite, hell is the stuff you have to buy in order to be yourself.

But our consumer culture is far too advanced to sustain itself on the crude meshing of supply and demand. In a market bursting with goods, consumers must be routinely surveilled in order to minimize the risks of selling. The invisible hand requires an invisible eye. So it’s no surprise that the surveillance society finds its purest expression in the collection of consumer data.

Sociologists call this corporate tracking “dataveillance.” It involves more than merely knowing your age, race, and religion; your profession, credit rating, and medical history— though all this information is readily available. When you surf the Net, buy through the mail, take a vacation, or actualize yourself with a credit card, you leave a data trail as revealing as an animal’s spoor. The pattern that emerges as these traces accumulate reveals a personality composed of tastes in everything from antacid to sexual partners. And this information is a valuable commodity. Direct marketing campaigns accounted for about $750 billion in sales this year, and the key to this bonanza is personal data.

The legacy of state surveillance makes Europeans sensitive to spy commerce, which is why the E.U’s constitution deems consumer information private. But U.S. courts and legislatures regard such data as public property. As a result, firms like Donnelly Marketing, which keeps dossiers on over 90 percent of American households, are able to operate beneath the radar of public opinion and beyond the scope of the law. Donnelly’s clients use its massive files to discover each family’s preferences in everything from pets to politics.

Data profiteers are aware of the general anxiety about snooping, and they’ve developed a game plan, equal parts incentive and subterfuge. For example, toll-free 800 numbers double as caller-ID systems, and whenever you use one of these consumer conveniences, your number may end up in a corporate database. The mother of all dataveillance gimmicks— the magazine sweepstakes— has evolved into Pavlovian giveaways like the PepsiCo program, which offered beepers to teenagers last year. The company paged 250,000 kids with ads and a message from Mountain Dew to call corporate headquarters. The winners got prizes, and the company gained entrée to the next PepsiCo generation.

The government doesn’t bother with freebies; it simply sells your personal information. Everything from cumulative census data to birth certificates, marriage licenses, and car registrations are grist for the data mill. In 38 states, any manufacturer can purchase from R.L. Polk & Co. a list of, say, every suburban male BMW owner under 25 who previously owned a Honda. With a few more links in the chain, it’s possible to know which of those Beemer boys are young white Republican heterosexuals who earn more than $150,000, groove on hiphop, and would like their leather jackets cut long and modeled by Derek Jeeter.

With the growth of new media, selling and surveillance are about to mesh to an unprecedented degree. Cable companies can now send different ads to small groups of viewers selected according to their data profiles. And on the Internet, “cookies” can track every site you visit, enabling marketers to assemble an even more precise image of your wants and needs. “Led by the Internet and direct-mail telemarketing, the ability to appeal to individuals is here,” says Bob Lieber, the president of LLKFB, a marketing firm affiliated with Saatchi & Saatchi. “It’s the power of TV with the targetability of one-to-one. That’s where the world is going.”

The ultimate use of all this info is a new corporate strategy called “relationship marketing,” in which companies seek to bond with customers for life through an increasingly differentiated array of transactions. Frequent-flier programs, leases that offer product updates, and dedicated customer reps are all designed to gather information companies can use to insure customer loyalty. Soon bookstores, supermarkets, and retailers will adopt this model of monitoring and reward. But the bonding doesn’t end there. In addition to paying a small premium for your patronage, the company offers new goods and services, creating a simulacrum of a real relationship that deepens over time.

Part of what makes this new approach to marketing so hard to resist is the way it complements the entertainment environment, which is becoming increasingly personalized. In the era of downloaded music and pay-per-view TV, the marketplace is made up of ever-narrower niches. Demographics— the old standard of selling to the masses— is being replaced by a more precise schematic, in which people are classified according to their personality profiles. On Madison Avenue, this strategy is called “psychographics.”

Such a high degree of segmentation depends on surveillance, and companies are enlisting the full range of technology to accomplish this crucial task. The corporate version of those electronic collars used in home detention is in development at The PreTesting Company of New Jersey. It’s a watch that records messages encoded in the sound tracks of radio and TV commercials. The future Neilsen families who wear this timepiece will give marketers unheard-of accuracy about who tunes in to what. The same device will also detect signals from a chip inserted into the spines of magazines, conveying how long a reader spends perusing a publication.

Of course, the same information available to marketing execs can be purchased by insurers and employers, with predictable results. Lists of people who have filed workers’ compensation claims are made available to businesses. Widespread migration of medical records results in denial of health and life insurance to recovered alcoholics, the mentally ill, and even battered women. This system doesn’t discriminate. One reporter in L.A. obtained the names and addresses of 5500 children from a data-collection company, despite the fact that she posed as a well-known child murderer.

This is the most obvious downside of the free market in personal data. But the more common consequence of being classified by your data trail is that it extends the biases of class into everything from getting a mortgage to the catalogues you receive in the mail to the way the phone company responds to your complaint. Once established, your profile is hard to shake, and for those outside the optimal psychographic, life can be like trying to get a taxi in Harlem.

But even those at the top of the data heap pay a price for their privileges, since the triumph of marketing has profound social implications. “Our lives are ever more controlled by relationships with organizations rather than with people.” says MIT sociologist and surveillance expert Gary T. Marx. “It is a society that is more abstract, where you see more alienation and fragmentation. Whatever is uniquely human gets diluted. You become a walking cultural caricature.”

This winnowing of the self in the machinery of marketing is part and parcel of the surveillance society. Like the proliferation of spycams and the rise of reality TV, it reflects a culture in which privacy is sacrificed for security, invaded for pleasure, and exploited for profit.

The rationale for all this is an almost utopian attempt to eliminate uncertainty, but each of these strategies also shrinks the terrain of freedom. Security cameras may curtail the chaos of the streets, but they chill dissent; SPY-TV may be a safe way to live dangerously, but it stylizes control; dataveillance may be an answer to the disorder of the marketplace, but it conflates personality with product. Even as it curtails risk, the surveillance society diminishes choice, and that may be the greatest trade-off. For in the end, we are the sum of our choices.

This is the third of a three-part series.

Read part one: Spycam City.
Read part two: Spycam Chic.
Read part three: Spy Commerce.