Big Data & Society 7(1), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951720925853. First published May 14, 2020.
Guest lead editors: Prof. Kirstie Ball*, Prof. William Webster**
* Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy, University of St Andrews, School of Management
** Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy, University of Stirling, School of Management
When viewed through a surveillance studies lens Big Data is instantly problematic. In
comparison with its predecessors, and by virtue of its pre-emptive impulses and intimate
data flows, Big Data creates a more penetrating gaze into consumers’ and service users’
lives. As Big Data draws on data streams from social and online media, as well as personal
devices designed to share data, consumers have limited opportunities to opt out of data
sharing, as well as difficulty in finding out what happens to their data once it is shared. In
the Big Data era, consumers and service users exert comparatively less control over their
personal information flows and their mundane consumption activities become highly
significant and subject to scrutiny. Their subjection to the social sorting which results from
the classification of those data is comparatively intensified and commercialised. Those
companies who are in a position to exploit the value created by Big Data Analytics (BDA)
enjoy powerful market positions.
Consequently, greater attention needs to be placed on corporate and other actors which
bring surveillance practices like BDA into being. BDA as practiced predominantly takes place
in organizational settings. Addressing the mid-range of BDA - the mesh of organizations
which mediate between the end consumer, the organisational and societal context, and the
marketer of products - reveals how the influence and power of BDA is far from a done deal.
The commercial logics which drive BDA implementation are seated in promises of seamless
improvements in operational efficiency and more accurate decision-making arising directly
from the use of analytics. As a marketing practice, for example, BDA seek to create value
from an extensive array of new data-generating sources used by consumers. The aim is to
produce new insight into consumer behaviours so that they can be better targeted by
marketers in real time and that their intentions can be predicted with a greater degree of
accuracy However, the realisation of this ‘value’ is highly contingent. Personnel
management, technology infrastructure, organizational culture, skills, and management
capability are all identified as crucial components and impact on the value generated. The
sheer socio-technical range and interdependency of these internal variables highlight the
two issues with which this special themed issue of Big Data and Society is concerned.
The first concerns the power relations and political dynamics of BDA implementation.
Adopting, enacting and complying with the demands of BDA strategies involves a rethinking
of roles, relationships and identities on the part of those involved in the transformation.
Significant pressure and hype has been brought to bear on non-technical organizational
constituencies, such as marketers, who have been challenged by the implications of BDA
and are required to reconcile their creative, qualitative approaches with an analytical world-
view. Similarly, in a public service context, managers are increasingly being required to base their policy and operational decisions on new information flows embedded in BDA. They are
finding that these novel technologically intensive processes are conflicting with traditional
long-established norms and organisational decision-making structures.
The second concerns how practices associated with BDA extend surveillance into the
intimate sphere. The surveillance practices embedded in Big Data are typically seen as
commercial processes and another facet of operational efficiency and value creation. Such
data can be subtle, highly nuanced and very personal. It can be collected from the home and
can include information gathered within intimate, domestic spaces. Ethical concerns are
recognised by practitioners, although they are still couched within a value discourse - and a
robust ethics committee can ‘allow’ and ‘oversee’ the collection of such data.
Big Data succeeds in extending the scope of surveillance by co-opting individuals into the de
facto surveillance of their own private lives. Through the increasingly embedded role of
online social networks and location sensitive mobile devices in social activities, the
boundaries between surveillance and the surveilled subject become blurred. Big Data breaks
down boundaries between different sources of data, thus allowing the combination of
information from different social domains. In democracies, with clearer legal protections of
the line between public and private, Big Data extends existing surveillance technologies in
its ability to co-opt the key economic actors - the corporations - and thus gain a window into
private lives. Big data practices are also allowing powerful commercial corporations greater
access to the machinery of government and public services in that they are being
increasingly influential in policy-making and service delivery, as well as getting greater
access to data deriving from these organisational entitles. The levels of ubiquity in terms of data collection, previously only available in tightly controlled political environments, are therefore now available universally.
A brief guide to the special theme
This theme features six articles, all of which contextualise Big Data hype within and at times
counter to business and organisational logics. They explore how BDA extends surveillance
across more intimate boundaries highlighting: the emotional registers of consumer; home
automation and household surveillance; and the surveillance and commercialisation of
children via ‘Hello Barbie’. They also examine how Big Data practices are produced,
reflecting the argument that the enactment of surveillant power using BDA is not a certainty
but a negotiated organisational process. This theme addresses a gap in critical scholarship
on Big Data, as it explores the links between Big Data, its organisational and commercial
contexts and increasing levels of intimate surveillance. The articles illustrate how business
and organisational practices shape and are shaped by BDA and how the producers and
consumers of Big Data are forging new intimate and intensive surveillance relationships.
BDA is not as revolutionary as sometimes suggested by vocal advocates. Its implementation
and use is embedded within, and shaped by, powerful institutional norms and processes-
and when seen in retrospect the development of BDA is clearly an incremental path