The Growth of Big Brother: The side effect of depersonalisation

Updated Tuesday, 23rd June 2009
Professor Elizabeth Daniel suggests that customers may not be aware of the information about them that is being stored, or how it might one day be used

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As mentioned in the programme, many organisations are turning to automated call-handling systems, on-line self service systems and other forms of technology to interact with their customers. Customers can find these approaches off-putting at best – and absolutely maddening at worst, particularly when things go wrong. I am sure most of us have had occasions when we are trying to tell our bank, mobile phone operator, utility company or other service provider about a difficulty we are facing – and getting stuck in what seems like an endless loop of recorded messages, menus of options and requests to key in 16 digit customer passcodes!

However, in addition to providing a source of frustration, these systems also have other side-effects that may be even more detrimental for all of us. The increased use of technology, particularly information technology, to automate the customer interface means that increasing amounts of data about our use of services, our movements and our tastes and preferences are stored on databases of both private and public sector organisations.

For example, my local railway station has recently "retired" the gentleman that worked in the car park pay-station for many years. Rather than handing over coins and notes to pay for parking, while receiving a ticket and a cheery greeting from another human being, users of the car park now have the option of going online or sending a message via their mobile phone.

Rather than displaying a printed ticket on the windscreen, the online or phone booking and payment is recorded in the database of the car parking provider, and all cars in the car park are checked against this database. So, what was a previously private matter, where and when I parked my car, has now become an ongoing record in a corporate database. Replicate this over all the customer interactions that are now based on the use of IT and it is easy to see why many people are concerned about the amount of personal data that is held about all of us and hence the increased potential for misuse of that data. UK citizens are already viewed as the most surveyed in the world; data capture as a by-product of de-personalising the customer interface will simply add to this.

The subject of the collection and use of personal data both from consumers and from people in the workplace has formed a basis of ongoing research at the Open University Business School, see for instance Ball, Daniel, Dibb and Meadows (2009). This team of researchers, which have backgrounds in surveillance, information management and marketing, has recently won funding from the Leverhulme Trust to explore what they have termed “new uses of customer data”; that is, uses of data that customers may not be aware of or that firms are being required to undertake, for example, by regulators and law enforcement agencies.

"So, what was a previously private matter, where and when I parked my car, has now become an ongoing record in a corporate database."

 The focus of the work will be firms in the financial services and travel sectors, which is particularly relevant when two of the three guests on the programme are from the travel sector. Both the financial services and travel sectors espouse the benefits of customer relationship management and the related activities of customer profiling and segmentation. For these activities they collect and store considerable amounts of information on their customers, including personal details and a record of all their transactions and purchases. However, as the focus of the research suggests, this data may be used for purposes that are not obvious to those that are providing it and may have unforeseen side-effects or consequences, both for the individual customers involved and for society at large.

As more and more organisations make use of technology to automate their interfaces with their customers, this collection of data will increase. Indeed, as in the case of the use of my station car park, customers may not even be aware of the information about them that is being stored, let alone how it might one day be used.

Find out more

Open University Business School research project Taking Liberties: New Uses of Consumer Data in the UK

Who's watching you work? Surveillance in business

A Report on the Surveillance Society
by KS Ball, D Lyon, D. Murakami Wood, C Norris and C Raab, Surveillance Studies Network.

Democracy, surveillance and 'knowing what's good for you': the private sector origins of profiling and the birth of 'citizen relationship management
by KS Ball, E M Daniel, S Dibb and M Meadows
from Surveillance and Democracy
edited by M Samatas and K Haggerty

Coercion versus Care: Using Irony to Make Sense of Organisational Surveillance
by G Sewell and J Barker
from the Academy of Management Review, Volume 31, Number 4, pages 934-961


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