Surveillance capitalism

I recently read Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It is an important book about how companies like Google and Facebook are tracking our every move and even trying to affect our behaviour in order to target advertisements. The book is also quite long and it might have benefited from a bit more editing to make it shorter and more succinct. Here I will just discuss some points of the book. For brevity (and due to laziness) I haven’t added references to facts that are referred to in the book (see the book for references).

Zuboff starts with the narrative of Google standing at a crossroads, around the year 2000. They already had a highly successful search engine, and tracked users in order to improve search results. But after the dot-com crash in the early 2000’s Google was under pressure to start to making bigger profits. This was when they came up with the idea of using the behavioural tracking data to target ads. This idea turned out to be highly profitable. According to Zuboff, from that point onward, Google’s every move was guided by the “extraction imperative” to collect as much user data as possible, as this was what they were making their money from. This theory explains, for example, why they are giving Android away for free, but requiring manufacturers to install their tracking infrastructure (all the Google apps) in exchange for having access to the Play Store.

This new idea, which Zuboff calls “Surveillance capitalism”, soon spread to Facebook and Microsoft, and to many other Internet companies. Business around the so called Internet of things (IoT) is also largely based on the idea to collect as much data about users as possible in exchange for some, often trivial, conveniences.

So what?

I think a common objection at this point would be: This is nothing new, and they are just tracking us to target ads better, and I don’t mind that. In fact, I’m happy if I can get more relevant ads, and if you don’t like it you can always opt out.

First, tracking and advertisement targeting can be more nefarious than you might think. Behaviour tracking and ad targeting has always been done partly in secret. We were never asked if we are willing to give up our behavioural data, it was simply extracted from us. At the very least this is a bit dishonest, as the extent of the tracking has only recently become clear (and perhaps there are still things we don’t know about). Also ad targeting is becoming more and more subtle. For example suggestions popping up in Google Assistant or Pokemon Go directing players to “sponsored” locations. Zuboff is concerned with our autonomy as humans as our behaviour is being subtly modified, perhaps even without us knowing about it. Another example (according to documents leaked to the Australian press in 2017) is that Facebook tries to predict when teens and young adults are feeling most vulnerable, and they use this information to display ads at just the right moment when they are most susceptible.

Second, opting out is practically impossible. Many people feel that modern life is impossible without some of these services. More and more products and services, even public services, assume that you can install a mobile app from either Google Play or Apple’s App Store - which means you need to opt in to their tracking as well. And even if you turn everything off, they are still tracking you. Facebook even keeps profiles of people not on Facebook.

Furthermore, this manipulation could be used for other ends than strictly commercial. Recent examples are the allegations that the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote were affected by targeted “fake news” on social networks. Zuboff also discusses Google’s close ties with the US government, for example the technology that led to Google Maps was funded by the CIA, and Google has had several contracts with the NSA. Especially after 9/11 the US government was very interested in this tracking data, and it was convenient that private companies could do things that would be illegal for the government to do.

Finally, as I already mentioned, surveillance capitalism might be moving more and more from merely behaviour prediction to also trying to affect behaviour. Zuboff goes back to B. F. Skinner, the famous behaviourist, who believed that a better society could be created by large-scale social engineering replacing democracy. Zuboff shows that Alex Pentland, a contemporary leading data scientist favoured by Google and others, has taken up very similar ideas, but now armed with all the tracking technology and the IoT devices of today. It seems that Google has been at least toying with this idea as well, see the “Selfish Ledger” video uncovered by the Verge. Needless to say, this would severely undermine democracy, and the idea of citizens being autonomous individuals. Even if you would accept this kind of social engineering “for the greater good”, who decides what is the right direction to steer people? How are the “puppeteers” held accountable?

What can we do about it?

Personally, and mostly as a matter of principle, I’ve stopped using all “surveillance capitalist” services on a regular basis, and I use an Android phone without any Google services. I do miss out on some conveniences, but so far nothing critical. However, I realise this might not be the route for everyone, and we need something more than merely an individual solution.

As a technically inclined person, I of course first think of technological solutions. For example, using peer-to-peer encrypted services like Signal, or contributing to decentralised systems like Mastodon, PeerTube and MediaGoblin. However, to really change things we probably need legislation, perhaps even banning parts of the surveillance-based business model. The GDPR is a step in the right direction, but is probably not enough.

Posted by Mats Sjöberg.

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