Behavioral data, not Biodata

tl;dr It’s not your biodata that surveillance capitalism is interested in. It’s your behavioral data.


We hear people saying that they have nothing to hide. Though this argument is obviously misguided in many ways, the most basic thing it gets wrong is the assumption that companies that make money off your data are doing it with your biodata.

Biographical data, also known as biodata is data about you - like your date of birth, details of family members, your home address, your educational qualifications, job history etc. Governments have stored most of this data in one form or the other for decades. A lot of people might even be convinced to not consider this to be private information at all.

Behavioral data is data gathered about your behavior by constantly monitoring you, profiling you and creating models to predict your next move or manipulate you into doing things. For example, this is the kind of data that is gathered during criminal investigations. In some cases, this kind of data collection usually requires legal authorization as well. Techniques include phone-tapping, video surveillance footage, recording audio of conversations etc.

Internet Advertising

Big internet companies, at least in the B2C space in the 90s were going bankrupt as they couldn’t figure out ways of making money with their offerings. Advertising though frowned upon by many Silicon Valley founders including Google’s was tried as an option of last resort to make money for the companies. But how would you show 100x return on investment to your venture capitalists on advertising revenue alone? It turns out that the better you know your customer, the better you can sell stuff to them. At least for the ad-tech companies, it is not about selling stuff but making people click on ads since that’s where the money is for them.

Knowing Your Customer User

Traditional advertising had a few problems. Billboards and newspaper ads were targeted based on where the audience is located. Television ads were based on the kind of programming in channels. It was hard to correlate between advertising and customer buying behavior. With internet ads however, the company knows immediately when their ad is seen or clicked on. Also, ads can be customized to each person since it’s all automated and computerized.

With the feedback loop in place, advertising tech could be continuously improved with behavioral data collected on customers. Though some of this data is helpful to draw statistical insights to help improve the products or services, it doesn’t provide economic justification for setting up the massive data-mining operations that characterize surveillance capitalism. Publicly available biographical details like age, gender, parents, address etc. are hardly useful to manipulate a person’s behavior at an individual level.

A person is most likely to click on an ad when it is most relevant to them. Static biodata is not useful to determine when to show what advertisements. For example, if the customer is a tampon company, knowing that the target user is a woman of a certain age is not enough. The company must read all her messages, do sentiment analysis, run some machine learning to correlate it against known data and figure out when her menstrual cycle begins to sell her tampons.

It is not too late

It is true that information can only be lost, but not recovered. Instead of worrying about the loss of your biodata or trying to protect it, focus on not letting them collect any more behavioral data about you. Stale behavioral data is usually discarded by ad-tech companies since it’s not relevant after a few months. Switching to privacy-respecting free software services, self-hosting and digital minimalism are great ways to get back in control of your digital life.