How Big Tech Companies Use Grey Surveillance To Exploit Users

A few weeks back, I came across this thread on Twitter which outlined how one should go about deleting their online content if they wanted to erase their entire digital footprint. The steps were quite tedious to say the least, with some of them requiring the user to remember passwords to email addresses they created in their early teens.

Going through the comments on the thread, it became clear that most people thought it was overkill to go to such seemingly extreme lengths to erase one's digital footprint. The most frequent question that popped up was, "why should I be worried about my digital footprint in the first place?"

Most of us subscribe to the notion that we are not that important to have to worry about tech companies knowing all the nitty-gritties of our lives and that is true, to a certain extent. The data about us that tech giants like Facebook and Google collect will most probably not be used to track and try to "eliminate" us like the CIA did to Jason Bourne.

What that data can be used to do though is what Hal Roberts of Harvard University referred to as grey surveillance back in 2008. Grey surveillance means that the data collected— although not being used to create dystopian scenarios like what Jason Bourne went through— can be used to do something equally sinister which is influencing how we view and consume content online.

Although one might be quick to point out that being chased across the world by CIA assassins is much more grave than Google targeting you with annoying ads, grey surveillance on a greater scale can cripple even democratic processes like elections as evidenced by how Cambridge Analytica helped Trump win the 2016 US presidential elections.

The bottom line of most tech companies' business models is to avail ads to their users. In order to ensure that the ads they present to users are as accurate as possible so as to translate them to clicks which translate to sales, they have to know as much about the individual users as possible.

Google—for example—have what is referred to as a "citizen profile" of every single user. This citizen profile is information about the user which has been stored since they created a Google account or used a Google service like Chrome, Youtube, etc. It comprises of information about every Google search you have ever made, every ad you have ever clicked on, every place you have been to, every image you have ever saved and every email you have ever sent etcetera.

Armed with this profile which contains this large array of information—both relevant and ostensibly trivial—like the age of your child,how well you did in high school,what degree you hold and whether you prefer scrambled or boiled eggs, Google is able to process this data and employ their algorithms to target you with ads which will nudge you to take action, basically playing the role of advertising agencies.

To ensure that the users take the action which will translate to ad revenue, Google marketers— who are responsible for placing ads for advertisers (the retailers) — use what is referred to as "micro-moments" which are "intent rich moments when decisions are made". An example of a micro-moment would be when a user gets sick and decides to "google" their symptoms like most of us do. In order to take advantage of the user's anxiety, Google will the avail ads which will ensure the user takes action like purchasing meds for the ailment that they think they have.

In this micro-moment, Google knows that your restraint is clouded by that feeling of anxiety and because of your desire for that bad feeling to go away, you are bound to spend to ensure that happens. On average, users have about 150 micro-moments a day and considering the fact that Google clocks about 40 000 searches a second, one can only imagine just how much they make from taking advantage of users micro-moments.

It is this social engineering that makes grey surveillance not as innocent and unproblematic as we might perceive it. The fact that tech companies are able and willing to capitalize on people's moments of weakness and discomfort is what makes it so important that issues of privacy should be taken seriously by users to avoid this exploitation because they have the most power to change the status quo because after all, they are the product that the tech companies use to make billions and without the product, there are no billions.

Smartphone users spend an average of 4.7 hours a day on their phones, freely giving data to big tech companies whilst also contributing significantly to their ad revenue by clicking and acting on advertising material. From this perspective, it might seem like there is a symbiotic relationship between the companies and users but because of the convenience offered by these exploitative services, most users are willing to concede their privacy to line tech giants' pockets. It is this privacy nihilism that makes the fight against the unscrupulous practices of big tech companies such an uphill struggle.

Just because big tech companies do not use your data to send assassins after you (but some third party might) does not make their exploitation of it any less sinister. Inciting and taking advantage of users' clouded emotions is as equally minacious and is just an example of how the greed of capitalism will always place more value on the dollar than on humanity and unfortunately, the exploitation will not stop as long as we as users keep prostituting the dignity that comes with privacy for convenience.


  1. The thread about deleting every trace of a digital footprint is like a "digital Servpro", so to speak...

    (Explanation: Servpro's slogan is "Like it never even happened.")


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