Browse Definitions:

consumer surveillance

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Consumer surveillance is the monitoring and recording of people’s activities and data, either online or in the physical environment, for commercial purposes. The practice is increasingly common in marketing and advertising, and customer data may be shared with third parties as well.

Online, consumer marketing is typically used for targeted marketing and advertising. Customer demographics, such as age, gender, location, education level, marital status, household income, occupation and hobbies are combined with data about people's online activities: what they search for, the sites they visit, what they discuss in social media, and so on, to focus marketing efforts where they are most likely to meet with success. Customer segmentation helps marketers and advertisers allocate resources more effectively and increases the likelihood of sales, as well as the opportunities for cross- and up-selling. However, many consumers are increasingly concerned about the amount of personal data marketers are collecting.

In the real world, mobile location-based services (LBS) allow marketers to track consumers’ physical locations as they go about their days. Marketers might, for example, send offers to mobile users from businesses in their current areas. Joseph Turow, author of “The Aisles have Eyes,” says that retailers have discovered that people are more comfortable with mobile surveillance than methods that rely on other devices and, as a result, are concentrating their efforts on smartphone users. “Because phones are so close to us—and this is going to happen more with wearables, down the line—that the closer we are emotionally as well as physically to our devices, and the more relevant or targeted or personalized the messages are, the less people will see this as a scarily or creepily intrusive.”

This was last updated in November 2017

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