If you feel you are being watched

If you feel you are being watched, you change your behavior.

Big Data is supercharging this effect.

This could limit your desire to take risks or exercise free speech.

Over the long term these 'chilling effects' could 'cool down' society.

This is how it works:



Your data is turned into thousands of different scores.

There are stars behind the cloud:

Databrokers turn your data into scores

Databrokers compare your data to the data of people they know more about. By comparing the patterns they try to guess the likelihood of thousands of details that you may never have disclosed. These are actual examples:

  • Religion
  • Rape victim
  • Into dieting
  • Into gardening
  • Number of online friends
  • Number of real friends
  • IQ
  • Political views
  • Had abortion
  • Gullibility
  • Projected sexual orientation
  • Real sexual orientation
  • Reads magazines on travel
  • Reads books on travel
  • Planning to have a baby
  • Communication device preference
  • Has house plants
  • Neuroticism
  • Openness
  • Date of Birth
  • Into Fashion

  • Parents divorced before the age of 21
  • Economic stability
  • Potential inheritor
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Year house built
  • Smoker in the household
  • Has 'senior needs'
  • Has 'diabetic focus'
  • Easily addictable
  • Physical frailty
  • Gun owner
  • Adult 'empty nester'
  • Education level
  • Runs marathons
  • Into Elvis Memorabilia

People are starting to realize that this 'digital reputation' could limit their opportunities.

(And that these algorithms are often biased, and built on bad data.)

In the news

  • You may not get that dream job if your data suggests you're not a very positive person.

  • If you are a woman you may see fewer ads for high paying jobs.

  • If you have "bad friends" on social media you might pay more for your loan.

  • Tinder's algorithms might not show you attractive people if you are not desirable yourself.

  • Cambridge Analytica created psychological profiles on all Americans to try and dissuade people from voting.

  • If you return goods to the store often this will be used against you.

  • What you post on social media may influence your odds of getting a tax audit.

  • Your health insurer may collect intimate data about your lifestyle, race and more.


People are changing their behavior to get better scores.

This has good and bad sides.


Social Cooling is a name for the long-term negative side effects of living in a reputation economy:


1. A culture of conformity

Have you ever hesitated to click on a link because you thought your visit might be logged, and it could look bad?

More and more people feel this pressure, and they are starting to apply self-censorship.

2. A culture of risk-aversion

When doctors in New York were given scores this had unexpected results.

Doctors that tried to help advanced cancer patients had a higher mortality rate, which translated into a lower score.

Doctors that didn't try to help were rewarded with high scores, even though their patients died prematurely.

Rating systems can create unwanted incentives, and increase pressure to conform to a bureaucratic average.

3. Increased social rigidity

Digital reputation systems are limiting our ability and our will to protest injustice.

In China each adult citizen is getting a government mandated "social credit score". This represents how well behaved they are, and is based on crime records, what they say on social media, what they buy, and even the scores of their friends.

If you have a low score you can't get a government job, visa, cheap loan, or even a nice online date.

Social pressure is the most powerful and most subtle form of control.

As our weaknesses are mapped..

We are becoming too transparent.

This is breeding a society where self-censorship and risk-aversion are the new normal.

Yes, we've had credit ratings before. But this is a whole new scale, with an incredible level of automation, integration and accessibility.

  • The big philosophical question:

    Are we becoming more well behaved, but less human?

    What does it mean to be free in a world where surveillance is the dominant businessmodel?

  • The big economic question:

    Are we undermining our creative economy?

    In a creative economy the people who dare to be different are our greatest resource.

  • The big societal question:

    Will this impact our ability to evolve as a society?

    Yesterday's fight for equality by a minority is today's widely accepted norm. But will minority views still flourish?

The solution?

We should compare this problem to Global Warming.

  • Social Cooling is subtle

    The pollution of our social environment is invisible to most people, just like air pollution was at first.
  • Social Cooling is complex

    It cannot be solved by politicians, citizens, entrepreneurs or scientists on their own.

Public awareness is still very low.

It took 40 years to get the problems with oil on the agenda, and 80 years to get to where we are now.
We can't take that long with Social Cooling.

In the next 10 years we will need to spread a more mature and nuanced perception of data and privacy.

As pressure to be perfect rises we will learn what privacy really is:


Can we still forgive and forget?

When algorithms judge everything we do, we need to protect the right to make mistakes.

When everything is remembered as big data, we need the right to have our mistakes forgotten.

In our data driven world..

Help spread the word

These are privacy-friendly sharing buttons.

Sources & further reading










Site by Tijmen Schep - Technology critic, privacy designer and public speaker.

Like this? Then also visit, or

Feel free to re-use content, it's all under a CC-BY 4.0 License.