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Open University Professor: Big Business Is watching You

OU Business School’s Professor Kirstie Ball suggests that counter-terrorism and anti-laundering laws are turning businesses into agents of government surveillance.

By  Stephen Bush

Mon Aug 8 2011

If you live in the United Kingdom, whether you’re sending e-mail, buying a book, purchasing a record, or just shopping for groceries, the Government is watching you.

Research by Open University Business School’s Professor Kirstie Ball has revealed the extent to which British businesses are being deployed by the state to spy on their citizens.

Whether it be the targeted adverts on Facebook, Amazon’s recommended reads, or deals offered by supermarkets such as Tesco’s or Wal-Mart, business have long tracked their customers’ buying and browsing habits to improve the services they offer; this is a vital part of successful Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

But following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in the wake of law enforcement agency Europol’s attempts to curb money laundering in the European Union, British businesses have come under legal pressure to share this information with governments.

As well as collecting this information, they have to pass it on to the authorities when there is evidence of ‘unusual activity’, and they must collate a wide range of data in order to ascertain when ‘unusual activity’ is taking place.

Granted, this data collection is a vital part of successfully meeting the desires and expectations of the 21st Century consumer. One of the reasons for Amazon’s success was its ability to connect customers with their desired products quickly and efficiently, and as any modern MBA graduate will attest, without this information, a company or product will quickly fall behind.

This information can also be used to prevent terrorist atrocities and to curb organised crime. But, as Ball explains, the impact on business can be negative, not just because customers migrate elsewhere, but also because the cost of compliance is so high.

Writing for Marketing Week, Ball explains: “[Businesses] are unhappy about picking up the tab for the Government’s surveillance work. In 2006, a survey of the financial services sector by KPMG found overall costs had gone up, largely due to the need to train staff in what to look out for and how to judge and manage risk.”