Surveillence Society: Selling Our Secrets

By Kiel Patrick
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2010, Vol. 2009/2010 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

“Personal information is increasingly the basic fuel on which economic activity runs.”1Perri 6

As early as 1978 the Henley Center identified that household interactions were becoming increasingly ‘cellular’ rather than ‘nuclear’2; that is increasingly family interaction as a unit was becoming far less regular and more divided – combined with the diversification of TV channels it was recognized that the growth in individualism would require new marketing strategies which in turn shifted from the promotion of universal products in mass markets through the mass media such as BBC 1 & 2 to the promotion of highly differentiated product’s target to particular niche markets3 – enter geodemographic profiling.

Geodemographics is an information technology that enables marketers to identify trends and patterns in various databases and create profiles of a consumer preferences distributed over a given area. Geodemographics works by collecting spatially referenced data on society, constructing statistical models of identity, and mapping distributions of social characteristics or types.4 Experian, the UK’s largest data profiler utilises one such geodemographic program called MOSAIC that collects and overlays data from numerous sources including government collected data such as the electoral roll, council tax property valuations, house sale prices, police crime statistics and consumer data including store loyalty cards.5 From this data Experian can socially sort and categorise the population into one of 141 person (stereo)types, 67 household types and 15 groups, to create a three-tier classification.6

While geo-demographic services claim to have irrefutably benefited profit driven organisations, this form of surveillance and social sorting brings with it major risks of exclusion to certain segments of society. According to a government report by the Surveillance Studies Network, geo-demographically inspired store placement and consumer targeting is resulting in public spaces being restructured resulting in the decline of universal access to services based on traditional notions of democratic citizenship, universal open access and universal tariffs in favour of targeted services accessible only to those who are allowed access, and priced very differently to different people and places7, as government services are being target to select audiences instead of the traditional model of democratic access for all.

Social exclusion and isolation resulting from demographically inspired store locations, aimed at targeting key consumers and maximising profits for a given company, is most noticeable in the lower income areas of inner cities where the loss of retail businesses such as supermarkets, pharmacies, non-fast food restaurants, banks and other leisure facilities are lacking, creating a ‘retail desert’. The lack of retail facilities has several effects upon society and social behaviours in affected communities such as contributing to high unemployment, increases in crime rates as well as severe implications for health and social mobility.

Geodemographic marketing research is not cheap and as such it is usually the chain stores or larger service providers that utilise such marketing methods, and it is these chain corporations and services that are usually absent from the lower socio-economic segments of towns and cities. Research carried out over the past few decade’s shows that chain supermarkets on average have lower prices than independent groceries stores, but independent stores are more common in poorer areas. As such those with less income generally pay more for basic produce,8 reducing both quality and quantity of consumption options. In addition to the price paid for food the nutritional importance of access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat which is reduced when access to the diverse selection of goods provided by large chain supermarkets are removed from a community is highlighted by a report by Shaffer.9

The emphasis placed on postcodes in determining status by geodemographics also has the effect of reducing prospects of social mobility: for example if geodemographic profiling classifies an area as high risk or in a low socio-economic income grouping, organizations such as banks, insurance and credit companies make decisions partly based on this information; resulting in the residence of a given area receiving higher interest rates on loans or mortgages; increased premiums or lower credit ratings increasing the difficulty in accessing selling a home; insuring property or indeed accessing credit. Individuals in turn become aware that having an address in a given area attracts a lower credit rating or higher insurance premium then has good reason to leave that area,10 in effect creating a self fulfilling prophecy as those with greater access to economic resources relocate; something that then has a knock on effect for remaining residents who lack social ties to more affluent neighbors, a factor that Wilson identifies as facilitating in social mobility.11

A recent government report titled ‘place matters’ highlights the importance of location in decision making in both the public and private sectors. The report recommends the implementation of universal standards in geographic based data collection and the integrations and implementation of data sharing within the government, meaning that data collected once can be used effectively and efficiently for other similar uses, saving time and effort. The justification for this is that when different types of information about a particular place are compared or related to each other, it can considerably increase the understanding and therefore the power to make effective decisions about a particular ‘place’.12 While this is entirely true, the government acknowledges that while the data it collects will be utilised to help benefit the community and citizen and government policy decisions, the data will also be used by businesses in formulating the best location for stores: with increasingly accurate information the stores will have access to more reliable information to discriminate against locations, and store location seldom is based on moral over profit based consideration.

While the concept of data sharing in this manner is incredibly efficient in concept, may well have many considerable advantages over previous forms of data collection by government, and be a natural extension from other current policy indicatives by the government such as the national identity card and DNA databases and the general labour strategy of joined up government; the issue of privacy for the individual citizen too must be considered in all of this.

While geodemographics is largely marketing hype, the implications of its usage by profit driven industries inevitably has direct implications for society at large. Unfortunately however geodemographics are not as omnipotent as one may be led to believe; not all data used in the construction of profiles is accurate, most notably due to age or reliability of sources. Moreover Gross identifies that geodemographic models operate on several flawed principles such as the assumption that social identity is reducible to a finite number of characteristics and that these characteristics can be classified into a limited number of static stereotypes; second, that social sorting and stereotypical identity is predictive of behaviour – particularly that of consumption – and third, that location is a determinant of both identity and behaviour, following “the fundamental sociological truism that ‘birds of a feather flock together’13.

While it is easy to dismiss government surveillance and data collection as harmless and geodemographic profiling as merely a consumer marketing tool, its usage has significant implications for society and the social behaviours of those targeted or indeed excluded. Geodemographics is contributing to the reshaping of our urban environment as profit driven businesses move location to seek the greatest potential customer coverage, they often in doing so exclude less desirable segments of society – either directly or indirectly – denying them democratic access to services and goods with a myriad of social repercussions such as unemployment, diminished long term health, social exclusion and reduced social mobility. Remember in 2011 when filling out census data or when next completing a survey, you are being watched, and you are being recorded.


  1. 6, P. – The Glass Consumer: Life in a Surveillance Society (2005) p.17.
  2. M Evans – The Glass Consumer: life in a surveillance society (Bristol, Policy, 2005) p.101.
  3. Swenson (1990) cited in Gross, J. – “We Know Who You Are and We Know Where You Live”: The Instrumental Rationality of Geodemographic Systems (1995) p.5.
  4. Gross, J. – “We Know Who You Are and We Know Where You Live”: The Instrumental Rationality of Geodemographic Systems (1995) p.2.
  5. Experian – MOASAIC’s UK sales Brochure (2009) p.4.
  6. Experian – MOASAIC’s UK sales Brochure (2009) p.5.
  7. The Surveillance Studies Network – A report on the Surveillance Society (2006) p.32.
  8. Larson, T. – Why there will be No chain supermarkets in Poor inner-city neighbourhoods (2003) p.33.
  9. Shaffer, A – The persistence of L.A.’s grocery gap: The need for a new food policy cited in Larson, T. – Why there will be No chain supermarkets in Poor inner-city neighbourhoods (2003) p.35 and approach to market development (2002) cited in T. Larson – Why there will be No chain supermarkets in Poor inner-city neighbourhoods (2003) p.40.
  10. M Evans – The Glass Consumer, p. 30.
  11. Wilson, W. J – When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor (New York, Vintage, 1996) p.53.
  12. The Geographic Information Panel – Place Matters: The Location Strategy for the United Kingdom (2008) p.8.
  13. Gross, J. – “We Know Who You Are and We Know Where You Live”: The Instrumental Rationality of Geodemographic Systems (1995) p.2.

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