Surveillance Capitalism

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.” — George Orwell, 1984

Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” is a fantastic, albeit slightly apocalyptic, explanation of how a new economy has sprouted from the digital age. Some of the ideas in this book might be familiar if you watched the 2020 film “The Social Dilemma”, which outlined how social media companies use their massive data collection capabilities to manipulate people, interfere in politics and aid the spread of conspiracy theories.

“Surveillance capitalism describes a market driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data, and the capture and production of this data relies on mass surveillance of the internet.”

Donell Holloway

Surveillance capitalism is an extension of capitalism that feeds on people’s personal and behavioural data rather than their labour — it uses human lives as free raw material to be exploited.

Data can be collected from personal information given while signing up for Internet services, Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart speakers or smart thermostats, web browsing, smartphones, Snapchat filters, microphones, cameras, Google Street View vans harvesting data from your Wi-Fi network as they pass you, or live facial recognition cameras used by the Police.

Wherever you are, there is always someone surveilling you and collecting your personal data. This data can be sold, used to improve personalisation or train machine learning algorithms, analysed by insurance companies and researchers, or studied by scientists. You have little control over what data is stored about you and who has it.

There is an incentive for companies to continue extracting more and more information because, for them, more data = more profit.

Zuboff’s book explains how surveillance capitalism arose out of Google’s realisation that they could profit from the huge amount of data that was available to them through their search engine by auctioning off ad placements to advertisers and then showing these adverts to users. They are able to target adverts with unprecedented precision to users. This means that advertisers are willing to pay much more for these placements.

It details how surveillance capitalism is able to influence people by using beahvioural modification methods referred to as “conditioning”, “herding” and “tuning”.

Tuning involves subliminal clues that are utilised at precise times to shape behaviour in a predictable way. Nudging is a form of tuning which was embraced by David Cameron and Barack Obama. It is a method of influencing actions by changing the environment so that a person is more likely to favour a particular outcome.

Herding is used to control key elements in a person’s immediate context. The herder is able to remotely orchestrate a person’s situation by limiting the number of actions they can take, therefore raising the probability of a particular action. In the future, this could be played out by recording the vital signs and emotions of drivers and turning off their car before they are likely to descend into road rage.

Conditioning is the most famous approach, associated with psychologist B. F. Skinner. He proposed that “behaviour modification should mimic the evolutionary process.” This involves recognising certain behaviours and giving rewards for them, thus making these behaviours more likely to occur.

These “behaviour modification” techniques may only have a small effect when used in isolation, and they can certainly be used for good, but when every business is hustling for your attention, each politician is trying to get more votes and media outlets are manipulating your opinions, is there any space left for your own freedom?

The lack of consent, when it comes to companies collecting your data, is astounding. A 2008 study showed that it would take 244 hours every year for the typical American Internet user to read the privacy policy of each website they visit. It is reasonable to assume that the numbers won’t be much different for British citizens, and that this amount has increased by a huge amount in the 13 years since that study.

It is not possible to read the privacy policies of each company collecting your data, and these companies are aware of that. We just give our personal data away freely because if we don’t accept their policies, we can’t use their service.

In their eyes this might count as consent, but can it be considered consent if people don’t know what they’re signing up for? We don’t know what data is being collected about us, and we are unlikely to ever know. This is not consent. They can argue that people willingly use their services, and the benefits outweigh the harm, but there is no negotiation — either they control you or you‘re excluded. During the pandemic, most people have found themselves signing up for numerous services like Zoom, for which they have no choice but to sign up. They could potentially lose their jobs if they reject these terms of service.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates that you don’t necessarily even need to accept an organisation’s privacy policy for them to collect your data. They collected data on over 50 million Facebook users after only 270,000 users downloaded a particular Facebook app.

Given the manipulation capabilities of surveillance capitalists, it is reasonable to question how this encroaches upon our freedom. They have a variety of tools at their disposal that can be used to make relatively accurate changes to human behaviour. We should be wary of the potential control they have over us. This power is dangerous in the hands of people without our best interest at heart.

Zuboff sees surveillance capitalism as an extension of the behaviourist psychology of B. F. Skinner. In Skinner’s book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, he proposed that the autonomy of man is an illusion. This is not a new idea, as free will is a heavily contested topic, but his approach to freedom and dignity is completely at odds with the West’s ideas of libertarianism and neo-liberalism. We have the concepts of freedom, individualism and autonomy entrenched in us at birth.

“It is in the nature of scientific progress that the functions of autonomous man be taken over one by one as the role of the environment is better understood”

— B. F. Skinner

Noam Chomsky was a heavy critic of this book, writing “his speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior.” His criticisms focused on Skinner’s assumption that scientific progress will eventually conclude that “behaviour is a function of genetic and environmental conditions.” Skinner discarded the scientific method by taking his preferred conclusion as an assumption.

Skinner believed that a happier and better-organised society could be created through cultural engineering, that all we need is greater control over the population. Chomsky noted that “there is little doubt that a theory of human malleability might be put to the service of totalitarian doctrine.” Although that isn’t a reason to completely dismiss Skinner’s ideas, it does require that we face this theory with caution.

There may be some truth to the limits of human autonomy, but is it wise to allow under-regulated private businesses or powerful governments to have complete ownership and direction of human behaviour?

The earliest demonstration of surveillance capitalists’ manipulation of politics is clearest in Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, for which he hired former Google CEO (current executive chairman) Eric Shmidt to help.

Google’s strong links with Governments globally has kept them, and other surveillance capitalists, safe from any real political interference or critique. Zuboff outlines how Google deliberately blur the line between public and private interests “through relationsips and aggressive lobbying activities”, and “a revolving door of personnel who migrated between Google and the Obama administration”.

They have a lot to offer to political campaigns, as they have unimaginably detailed analytics that can be used to target and manipulate specific voter groups. For the Obama campaigns, they had access to data about every “wavering voter” and were able to assess how easily they could be persuaded into voting for the Democrats using their manipulation techniques.

Clearly it isn’t only Obama who uses surveillance capitalism’s tactics to manipulate people. Manipulation of the population through advertising, media and propaganda is nothing new, but the scale and efficiency of this new form of manipulation is completely unprecedented.

Facebook’s Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, recently wrote an article on Medium, in which he defends Facebook against criticisms of fuelling polarisation and exploiting human weakness.

“You should be able to better understand how the ranking algorithms work and why they make particular decisions, and you should have more control over the content that is shown to you.”

— Nick Clegg

He concedes that they have a responsibility to give users “more control” and that “you should be able to better understand how the ranking algorithms work and why they make particular decisions, and you should have more control over the content that is shown to you.” This is the sort of progress that is needed but it’s just empty rhetoric until they act on it.

Predictably, he finds a way to shift the blame. He argues that it is the responsibility of the government to regulate tech giants to ensure safety and security for Internet users. While this is absolutely correct, it might have been worth doing something about it when he was the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom…

On the other hand, he does bring up some good points. Facebook and other surveillance capitalists are not simply inherently evil companies set on destroying humanity — it’s much more complicated than that. The services they provide are intended to build a more connected world, where people are able to communicate, share ideas and enjoy a personalised user experience where the content they like is easy to find. Social media has provided all of these benefits and more, but they have come at the grave cost of privacy, safety and freedom.

Technology is set to become an increasingly important part of our lives, so we have to ensure that the corporations and governments that utilise this technology are doing so in the public’s best interests.

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is a 2016 EU law on data regulation. It is a set of requirements that any organisations that process data of EU citizens must fulfil. It specifies that organisations should only store necessary data, it should be stored securely, the user has a right to know what it is used for, and they have the right to access their personal data.

This legislation was a huge leap forward for Internet users. It has had a global effect, even though it’s only an EU law, because any company that stores the data of EU citizens has to obide by this. This has led to some sites blocking any European traffic, but mostly it has meant that these regulations are being followed globally.

Even the world’s largest surveillance capitalists — Google and Facebook — have made huge progress in this regard. They have made it pretty easy to change your privacy settings, gather or remove the data they have collected on you, and limit personalisation. By combining strong privacy settings on every survice you use, ad-blockers, tracker-blockers, VPNs and safer search engines like DuckDuckGo, there is an opportunity to protect yourself against many aspects of surveillance capitalism.

The dangers that I mentioned throughout this article are still very relevant. There are many reasons to be cautious around your data, but huge progress is being made, and there are signs that the Internet could become a place where your rights to freedom and privacy are respected.

A Computer Science student with a passion for technology, philosophy and music.

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