Surveillance Capitalism Is Destroying Our Freedom and Our Intimacy

Surveillance Capitalism Is Destroying Our Freedom and Our Intimacy

For Google, Facebook, Twitter and their ilk, ad revenues are sacred. As Shoshana Zuboff observes in her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, users are not tech companies’ customers — the businesses who purchase ads are. And those ads derive from data invasively captured, to which the tech behemoths have unilaterally laid claim. The data is secret, and so are the behavioral predictions based on it. With the ads — as with the novel ways of invading privacy afforded by new technologies — something new is going on; because although advertising has been around for generations, in the twenty-first century it suddenly exploded into a titanic fountain of wealth for tech companies.

How did this happen? And why is the machinery that works that fountain kept so secret? The answers lie in Zuboff’s book, and they are alarming. Late-stage capitalism has birthed a monster called surveillance capitalism, which is seeking to do to human nature what the old industrial variety of capitalism did to the earth.

Users are surveillance capitalists’ raw materials. By invading users’ privacy — your searches, emails, texts, tweets, likes, online shopping, online friends, contacts, your entire activity on your phone and computer, your face, your voice — they claim data. This is what Zuboff calls Google and Facebook’s proprietary surplus. They have fantastic quantities of information on billions of users, which they can render into ads tailored to individuals. Their customers are the businesses who advertise, not you — you are the raw material. And the invasiveness does not stop there.

Tech companies have moved from snatching data in the virtual world to grabbing it in the real world, mining location data from phones, personal data from microphones in smart surveillance TVs and information from home computer assistants and soon, Zuboff reports, self-driving cars. Even toys spy: The Cayla doll was deemed an illegal surveillance device and banned in 2017 by Germany’s Federal Network Agency. Tech companies have also invested in wearable devices that constantly harvest data on peoples’ likes, spending, movement and social life.

Other industries have jumped on the surveillance capital bandwagon. Airline companies now can spy on passengers with cameras on the backs of airplane seats. According to a recent article in the British Independent, American, United and Singapore Airlines “have new seatback entertainment systems that include cameras. They could also be on planes used by other carriers.” The ostensible reason is to offer “seat-to-seat video conferencing.” The three airlines reported that they have not activated the cameras, and American Airlines told the Independent that “cameras are a standard feature on many in-flight entertainment systems used by multiple airlines.” The Independent reported that according to the airlines, “manufacturers embedded [the cameras] in the entertainment systems.” The main manufacturer, Panasonic, did not respond to the publication’s queries.

Being tracked has attained such ubiquity that Zuboff tells young audiences: “It is not OK to have to hide in your own life, it is not normal…. It is not OK to spend your lunchtime conversation comparing software that will camouflage you and protect you from continuous unwanted invasion.” Noting how many trackers were blocked or facial features scrambled on a regular basis indicates a much larger problem.

Surveillance leads tech companies to behavior modification for profit: influencing users to purchase what they advertise. Pokémon Go exemplifies this behavior modification, according to Zuboff. The game herds users into real world spaces, shops and restaurants that pay for the service. Though this may seem innocuous — maybe the player was hungry anyway, so being directed to McDonald’s is beneficial — future applications will not be. Zuboff reports that as Amazon and Google vie for the rights to our cars’ dashboards, we would do well to consider the consequences: The owner misses a car payment or an insurance payment on a smart car with its smart online dashboard. The computer simply shuts down the vehicle’s engine. It instructs the car not to start until the owner pays. If she doesn’t pay, the online alert system informs the repo man where to collect the vehicle.

Invasive smart devices are also being readied for people’s homes. Zuboff quotes a software developer: “We can tell the fridge, ‘Hey, lock up, because he shouldn’t be eating,’ or we can tell the TV to shut off and make you get some sleep, or the chair to start shaking, because you shouldn’t be sitting so long, or the faucet to turn on, because you need to drink more water.”

So, Zuboff reports, behavior modification, once reviled as humiliation and exploitation, is back: “The fundamental purpose of most people at Facebook working on data is to influence and alter people’s moods and behavior.” Awareness of this fact threatens surveillance revenues. So, the tech giants strive to keep their users, their raw material, passively unaware. Zuboff concludes that “the new global means of behavioral modification that we see … at Facebook and [Pokémon Go] represent a new regressive age of autonomous capital and heteronomous [controlled by others] individuals.” The goal, Zuboff explains, is total certainty in the market, by means of the apparatus of the roughly 25 billion intelligent devices that will be deployed by 2020.

Zuboff gives many definitions of surveillance capitalism, but three stand out:

  • A parasitic economic logic in which production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification.
  • A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge and power unprecedented in human history.
  • The foundational framework of a surveillance economy.

How did this happen? It started with “behavioral surplus discovered more or less ready-made in the online environment.” This “data exhaust,” or information about users, was employed to predict user behavior. “Those prediction products became the basis for a preternaturally lucrative sales process that ignited new markets in future behavior.” How lucrative? The “discovery of behavioral surplus,” Zuboff writes, “had produced a stunning 3590 percent increase in revenue in less than four years” for Google, whose inventions “revolutionized extraction,” leading to a “new economic logic based on fortune telling and selling.”

With more data, Google’s “machine intelligence” improved, leading ultimately to “automated systems that relentlessly track, hunt and induce more behavioral surplus.” Google defined “human experience as free for the taking, available to be rendered as data and claimed as surveillance assets.” The company deliberately obfuscated this process. According to Zuboff, the many reasons it succeeded include: unprecedentedness; invasion by declaration, namely, taking what it wanted and calling it theirs; the neoliberal historical context; fortifying relationships with elected officials; habituating users to once-outrageous facts; inevitabilist rhetoric; weaponizing the ideology of human frailty; the public’s ignorance born of tech giants’ deliberate secrecy; and velocities that outrun democracy. Zuboff writes that “in the nearly two decades since the invention of surveillance capitalism, existing laws centered on privacy and antitrust have not been sufficient to disrupt growth.” A culture of secrecy enabled Google’s and Facebook’s run around the law.

Google not only hides its business practices, but even where it will locate its offices. Truthdig recently reported that as Google secretly expands across the U.S., it is getting millions of dollars in tax breaks. Google plans to have a presence in 24 states. According to Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin, Google’s “development spree has often been shrouded in secrecy, making it nearly impossible for some communities to know, let alone protest or debate, who is using their land, their resources, their tax dollars, until after the fact.”

Secrecy is crucial, because Google “took things from users without asking and employed these unilaterally claimed resources” for others’ profit. When asked what Google is, co-founder Larry Page answered, “personal information.” Google’s leaders thus have aggressively defended their right to freedom from law, Zuboff writes, despite their corporate colossus expanding to become more formidable than any other in the world. Google’s leaders “insist on lawlessness as a natural right.” Meanwhile, Zuboff explains, “extraction quarry must be both unprotected and available at zero cost,” hence Google and Facebook lobby vigorously and successfully against online privacy protection. Not surprisingly, the collaboration between Google and the intelligence community, especially the NSA, as Edward Snowden revealed, is “unprecedented.”

According to Zuboff, “the real credit for [Google’s] success goes to … its disregard for the boundaries of private human experience and the moral integrity of the autonomous individual.” Google’s behavior reinforces Zuboff’s observation that “capitalism should not be eaten raw. Capitalism, like sausage, is meant to be cooked by a democratic society and its institutions, because raw capitalism is antisocial.”

The tech behemoths have proved this truth with their violations of privacy. Ironically, as Truthout reported on March 7, Facebook recently announced a shift from “publicly shared content” to what founder Mark Zuckerberg called “privacy focused communications,” namely messaging. It’s ironic, given Facebook’s and the other tech giants’ profound assault on privacy. Take their “terms of agreement.” These are generally far too lengthy and dense for an average user to read in toto. Most people just click “agree” and sign away their privacy. Some Google incursions have caused lawsuits, but, Zuboff writes, the company response is: “Don’t look back. Wait them out. Step on them, if necessary.” That was its approach to public outrage over its scanning of private email content after it launched Gmail in 2004.

With the Federal Trade Commission, Google has stalled, while its privacy violations continue. In fact, Zuboff observes, “short of institutional suicide, there is little Google can say or do to ensure ‘user privacy.’” Overall, the company “has done incrementally and furtively what would plainly be illegal if done all at once.” And the competition followed. When Verizon and other telecoms started chasing surveillance capital revenues, Verizon’s claims that users could opt out of being tracked and thus protect their privacy were proven false.

Surveillance capitalism promotes what Zuboff calls a “machine hive in which our freedom is forfeit to perfect knowledge administered for others’ profit.” She observes that while we live a sixth extinction due to industrial capitalism, a seventh looms on the horizon. “This ‘seventh extinction’ will not be of nature but of what has been held most precious in human nature: … the sanctity of the individual, the ties of intimacy, the sociality that binds us together in promises and the trust they breed.” Destroying freedom, autonomous personhood and the politics based on them, surveillance capitalism is chillingly incompatible with democracy.