Innovative dystopias

An essay by Matt Stoller called "Profit-Driven Surveillance and the Spectrum of Freedom" on Naked Capitalism looks at the way that analytics, real-time tracking, and the for-profit prison and debt industry combine to produce a dystopia: "In fact, whether you are tracked because you get a discount on your auto insurance or whether you have broken some arbitrary rule or fit in a non-mainstream class of person, innovation in technology and autocratic organizational forms means that there will be a whole new category of constraints on freedom."

There are innovations in injustice that could accompany these products. Traditional illicit corporate profit-taking has been about denying certain products to segmented groups of people – segregation in housing, lower quality of medical care for ethnic and gender groups, predatory lending etc. But technology has now opened up a new model of profit-taking – if a company knows where you go, who you talk to, what you buy and eat, and your medical history, then it can charge you premium pricing by denying you exactly what *you* want. It can bypass your ethnographic group, and focus on tolling off component parts of what you as an individual want.

Imagine a new financial product targeted at people who have defaulted on debt and have a history of avoiding debt collectors. It’s a new kind of credit card, by a bank, which offers a reasonable rate of interest. You don’t have to put up cash or collateral. You don’t have to pay on time. The catch is that the financial institution requires that you wear a small tracking device on your ankle, so that their debt collection department knows where you are at all times. And if you violate the terms of service, the device blares out messages from debt collectors, wherever you are. The device could also be set up to blare out messages whenever you enter a “restricted zone”, say, a shopping mall or a store that the bank has put off limits to you.

Or imagine that a corporation decides that new employees must wear one of these for the first 30 days of employment, to ensure that he or she isn’t tardy, and to more accurately clock people in and out of work. The technology exists, and is being marketed, by private corporations. And it is being used by private corporations everywhere in America, to track tens of thousands of people. I drew this example from a specific device that could do this is called the ExacuTrack One) – the web page describing its technology leaves open all sorts of chilling possibilities. The reason you haven’t noticed is because these products are tracking prisoners, ex-felons, and people on parole.

Profit-Driven Surveillance and the Spectrum of Freedom: “We will offer electronic monitoring services in every state.”


  1. The companies contracting to track probationers and parolees already make a healthy profit because courts push all costs of surveillance on the subjects. It’s only natural to extend this to enforce terms of service, along with a system of penalties. Some company just has to be the first to jump. It might as well be one that provides a service people are required to buy, such as car insurance.

  2. Hmm, so this is how the US will end up.  Wonder where I can emigrate to avoid all of this.

  3. I really can’t see a realistic scenario in which all of this technology is going to go away – if anything we are going to have exponentially more sensors and more networked automation of every kind scattered across the physical world. What we need is a way to track the trackers – to be notified of the identity of every person who chooses to watch us (and which of our info they focus on) every time they do it. And, of course, equal opportunity for us to then watch them.

      1. I’d rather use technology to give roughly equal surveillance power to all individuals than encourage the less powerful to hide from the more powerful. The elites will always have more of anything that is both valuable and possible to acquire. If privacy becomes too costly for ordinary people to acquire (and technological progress – which is all about information capture and processing – has this as an unavoidable side effect), the only way to prevent abuse is to make sure that it is just as tough to acquire for the elites.

  4. Why would they need to slap ankle bracelets on people? Between debit cards and smart phones, I’d say there’s enough location info out there to drone strike 90% of Americans right now.

  5. The Right’s current  fave US judge abhors the current state of  jurisprudence in that economic freedom is given less weight than personal freedom, and that’s just not in the constitution!  I can’t find a link.  Will post when I find one.  It was a piece of dicta in a dissent and I was rather startled when I read it.

  6. It’s that, in aggregate, we are predictable.  So the propensity to buy Coke is tightly linked with the propensity to buy Doritos.  If you can track all the Coke buyers, you know who most of the Doritos buyers are.  If you track all the drug convicts, you know who the reoffenders will be.  If you track all the brown people, you know who is going to buy the Coke, buy the Doritos, buy the drugs and reoffend and Amerikkka is safe once again.  *beebeeebeebeeeebeeeeep*  Whoops, I stepped outside of my home zone for a sec.  I’m back.

  7. Credit card companies already tag your card when you do ‘nontypical’ behaviour (like travel abroad).  It isn’t much of a stretch for car insurance companies to track how often y0u speed or roll through a stop sign, and tweak your rates accordingly.  Right now google tracks pretty much everything we look at and what we click on.

    I think the only way to avoid it will be to create distributed identities that do different things for you, and even that will eventually be tracked.  Perhaps create multiple bogus identities that do enough random stuff that your own activities get lost in the chaff. 

    It all sounds complicated, but so do proxy servers and anonymized routing of data, and that is the norm now.  It will likely be the case that privacy will be best served by poisoning the data pool with dataspam.

  8. Sounds like Arthur Miller’s novel ‘Focus’.  Identify the undesirables and act accordingly.  

  9. It does raise the question of how we might remain anonymous in an environment of ubiquitous surveillance and datalogging.

    Flood the spreadsheets with spam identities?  Each of us using a random identity from thousands for each random interaction?  How would we manage that?  How would I do that without looking like a money launderer or terrorist?

  10. Yes, fascism is here and it will get worse.  It is like pot of frogs slowly being boiled to death but don’t worry someone will get too greedy.  Then there will be frogs jumping out all over the place because someone turned the heat up too fast.

    If you are losing the chess game try knocking over the table. 

  11. I’m sorry but, WHAT?!?

    I got lost in the first couple of sentences, where these capitalist companies make profit by _denying_ a product or service to someone?  Last time I heard something like that was my first couple of years on campus when we all wanted to stick it to The Man.

    I completely agree that tracking will be ubiquitous.  hell, it’s a large part of my job.  But we (I) do this so I can make sure I get the right product or service to someone in the most efficient manner possible.  If I want to make more money (and I do) I need to deliver more products, or products at a higher price, or both.  That means I need to build better products (and we obsess over this part), in a better experience.

    I’ve never _denied_ anything to anyone as long as their credit card clears.  

    1. It’s about price discrimination.  Instead of charging what the market would bear, the seller is able to charge what the individual customer would bear.  As a seller, ordinarily I set one price for everyone.  But if I know you, in particular, desperately need what I have to offer, I can charge you a premium.

      Say, for example, I run a grocery store.  For customers with cars have one price, because I know they can easily shop somewhere else.  For customers without cars, however, I charge more, knowing it is not worth their time and money to make the trip.

      This is the case for rents, and the reason for slumlords:  slums demand the highest rent per square foot, because the poor people who live there need *somewhere*, and because they can’t afford transportation and need to be close to where they work.  The general pattern is repeated in many forms: those with more money and less need pay less;  those with less money and greater need pay more.  Detailed information like this increases the potential for abuse.  Nor, I think, could one opt out:  being without data would be like being without a credit record.

      According to Ricardo’s Law of Rent, the landowner, not the tenant, appropriates any additional productivity from fertile land.  Replacing purchase with licensing, as can be done with any product with a copyrightable component, perfects the system.  If I know exactly how much my product is worth to you, and if I can enforce my monopoly and prevent resale or parallel imports with DRM, I can appropriate the benefits of any innovative use you make of my product.  Mark Lemley explains this in his article “Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding.”  The result is to destroy the market in favor of a rentier economy.  Which seems to be where we are headed anyway.

  12. It’s on a slightly more general level than just this article:

    The idea that the for-profit-motive can been universally be applied to absolutely everything with a positive effect needs to die in a fire quick.

    Before the right-wingers start screaming, i’ll freely admit that the polar opposite would probably be just as bad.

    But the profit motive does need to be acknowledged that whilst it’s a positive force in some areas, It’s also a highly damaging force in others*.

    *most notable example: essential public services: you can’t not use them, so you’ll have to pay for it anyway. As increasing the service quality won’t increase profits, but raising prices and decreasing quality will, the profit motive is a profoundly negative force.

  13. Does anyone honestly believe that John Q. Public is going to put up with 24-7 GPS monitoring as a condition of employment? Seriously, this guy’s gone off the deep end in terms of paranoia. 

    1. Did you think good people ™ would let strangers feel up their children looking for bombs?
      They do, thanks TSA.
      People will swallow all sorts of things to get the cookie or something, and they will shout down everyone who points out the real problems with how this is being done as not being patriotic or working against the Government/Corporation.
      And then the water in the pot starts to warm up and they figure out that they were included in the system to, not just bad people ™.

    2. Really? If the choice is “submit to monitoring or lose your job”, I’d bet a lot of people would bite the bullet.  It’s shitty out there.

  14. On a more profitable level, how would people feel about prices being tailored to your demographic data as it has been gathered by google and the rest?

    So maybe you aren’t blocked from access to a product, but the algorithm looks at your previous purchasing and search history before presenting you with a price that is individually tailored to your relative wealth, tastes and interests (i.e. you might pay more for a rare comic than I might).

    Using your data profile to tailor products and marketing approaches is already happening, as anyone who uses Google ads can tell you.  It is a short and very profitable step to tailoring the price as well.  A little lower for people with lower income (but still profitable), a lot higher for wealthy people who happen to love that particular product.  If you recently bought a Porsche your yoga video will be more expensive, if you are researching DIY repairs for your 1987 Toyota then it will be cheaper.   

    1. I’ve often wondered how much the prices that Amazon offers me differ from those they offer to others.

      Ugh, what a world we’re moving into. It already feels like I’m attached to several invisible leashes.

    2.  I seem to remember that airline ticket prices did exactly this: if you’d looked up a flight previously, and then looked it up again, the tickets would be higher-priced. If you then reset your browser (erasing all your cookies), and looked up the flight a third time, they’d be back to their original price.

  15. For the generally undergrad-on-a-beanbag quality of discussions like this, I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Michel Foucault yet… Security, Territory, Population, Discipline & Punish, etc.

    Knowledge is power, and the more capable we are of generating and recording “knowledge”, the more susceptible we are to others using that “knowledge” against us.

        1. Arghhhhh – It’s a PoMo wrestling match! In a no-holds-barred tag team grudge match, IN A CAGE, it’s … Oh FFS, who cares….

  16. A/B testing certainly occurs regularly (where a percentage of customers are presented with a different variable, sometimes price, to test impact on sales).  It wouldn’t take a particularly sophisticated algorithm to look at previous purchases, how many sites you tend to look at before buying etc. to set a price specifically tailored to your psychological profile.

    e.g. If you are a classic one stop shopper, the price will be higher.  If you are known to shop around and find a cheap deal, it will be lower.  If you are one of the people who always finds a coupon code before buying, the price will reflect that.

    Then we always get to feel like we bought on our terms, and businesses always get to maximize profit.  The downside is the total corrosive effect it would have on trust. 

  17. “Traditional illicit corporate profit-taking has been about denying certain products to segmented groups of people – segregation in housing, lower quality of medical care for ethnic and gender groups, predatory lending etc.”

    Cory, as much as I like your books, your ignorance of basic economics is astonishing.  “Segregation” without reason or for the reason of prejudice against some segment of population is simply unprofitable, period.  Let’s say company A refuses to sell to backs, while company B sells to both whites and blacks (other things being equal).  Company B has a lot bigger market – and thus can get higher volume for their sales, and thus enjoy higher economies of scale, making its (otherwise equal) products cheaper for both blacks and whites. As a result, company A loses customers while company B prospers.  The free market destroys prejudices.

    The reason why seeming “segregation” persists is because companies have imperfect information – when you loan to somebody you want to determine the likelihood of your money being paid back.  And one of the most significant correlations for the risk is the cultural background of the borrower… which is different between kids raised in white suburbs and in ghettos.  Nothing to do with the color of the skin (though this, for a different reason, correlates to the cultural background as well).

    Now.  Would you rather have banks not giving loans to ghetto dwellers at all or giving them at a higher interest rate, reflecting higher risk?  Or are you willing to force banks and businesses to lose money (and be forced to charge more to their more reliable customers just to stay afloat – amounting to the forced wealth redistribution, Bolshevik-style), replacing imaginary “injustice” of imperfect information with the quite real injustice of cops with guns and batons threatening people who didn’t do anything wrong to anybody?

    Incidentally, this is why more personal information is good – the more businesses know about you, the more trust you’ve got (assuming you’re trustworthy – although this assumption is hard to accept about people who advocate violence as means to achieve their idea of social harmony,  frankly).  They may be able to move beyond crude categorization based on zip codes and salary numbers to take into account the details of the person’s history – and thus offer better deals to people who actually deserve them, and reduce the penalty those of us who actually consider it a point of honor to pay, for the losses incurred by servicing deadbeats and thieves, disregarding the color of the skin as the irrelevant indicator it is.

    1.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.

      For example, say a business is located in an area that’s 80% white, 20% black. Assume there are no equal-access laws and the business can allow or disallow any customers it wants. Further assume the prejudices of the white customers are such that if black people shop somewhere, then some percentage of the white customers will stop shopping there.

      You can do the math. Even if all the black people in town start shopping there, if more than 25% of the white people quit shopping there, the business has still suffered a net loss of customers. No purely free-market business owner would choose to desegregate his business based on those numbers. If a business owner had enough capital, he might open a separate store for the black customers, to capture that 20% of the market without losing his white customers. But that hardly looks like “destroying prejudice.”

      As for prejudice in lending, there is evidence (to cite just one case) that sometimes, black and Hispanic people are offered worse terms than white people with equivalent income, assets, and credit rating. How is that about “imperfect information”? It’s nothing more than a faulty assumption on the part of the lender — that people with a particular skin color are inherently less likely to pay back the loan. No amount of extra information about someone’s financial history will change that faulty assumption.

      The free market doesn’t destroy prejudice. Prejudice is part of the information that drives the free market.

  18. So what we have here is basically the “Scarlet Letter” of our time. Perhaps one day we will be forced to wear headbands that display our adulterous credit score.

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