The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism



If you want a scary read, put down that Stephen King horror and pick up this weighty tome by the Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School. Her findings about knowledge, power and data in the digital age are truly shocking. The internet behemoths, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, quickly realised that they had access to a new kind of asset, namely ‘behavioural surplus’, which could be traded for profit. The methods they were using to harvest the data, known as ‘surveillance capitalism’, were beneath underhand. Eight years ago, the German Federal Commission for Data Protection announced that Google’s “Street View” operation was actually a cover for collecting data from private Wi-Fi network names and unencrypted personal information, including credit information, passwords, messages, e-mails, records of online dating, browsing behaviour, porn, medical details, location data, photos, and both audio and video files. By 2012, there were multiple investigations in twelve countries, including most of Europe, North America, and Australia; Google had been found guilty of violating laws in at least nine countries. They denied doing anything wrong and defended themselves by saying that it was a mistake made by a single engineer working on an ‘experimental’ project, that had inadvertently made it into Street Views’ software. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Google was unrepentant and refused to co-operate with any investigations. Recently, the Commission “nationale de l’informatique et des libertés” (CNIL), the French data protection watchdog, fined Google a record €50m for ‘failing to provide users with transparent and understandable information on its data use policies’.

Pokémon Go was unveiled in 2015 to the Wall Street Journal, with a declaration that the game would not include ads, but revenue would accrue through ‘microtransactions.’ It became the most downloaded and highest-grossing app in the US within a week. Within days of the launch, an ‘unprecedented pattern was faintly discernible’; Bars, restaurants and shops across the States were offering discounts and two-for-one deals to Pokémon players, who were unwittingly walking into stores they did not even know they wanted to visit. Deals were struck with MacDonald’s, Starbucks and other retailers in ‘sponsored locations’ to direct players to their doors, and profits soared. A BuzzFeed reporter advised Pokémon players how much data the app was collecting from their phones, and suggested that ‘with its surging popularity, (it) may soon make it one of, if not, the most detailed location-based social graphs ever compiled.’ Clever stuff. 

Zuboff makes the point, somewhat effusively, that our everyday experiences, distilled into data, have become an asset through the most profitable and highly capitalised businesses in history used to predict and channel our behavior, whether it be on-line shopping, socialising, working or voting. She sees their predominance as a threat to personal freedom and democracy. She quotes George Orwell’s views on euphemisms in politics, war and business as instruments that ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.’ In industry jargon, two popular terms have been coined as euphemisms implying worthlessness, namely ‘digital exhaust’ and digital breadcrumbs,’ which are, in reality, informational by-products of on-line activity that become the inputs to prediction algorithms. She also makes the point that Google discovered the source of every map-maker’s power. In the words of the great historian of cartography, John Harley, ‘Maps create empire.’ Maps are ‘essential for the effective pacification, civilization, and exploitation of territories imagined or claimed, but not yet seized in practice. Places and people must be known in order to be controlled. An early map of the United States bore the motto “Order upon the Land”. With astonishing audacity, Google mined people’s data without permission or compensation, through Gmail, whose messages and address books they plundered and absorbed into their system, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Shopping and Google News, all rendered information about people’s whereabouts, behaviour, brand preferences, interests and political views. If Google is found guilty of violating a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission in the US, the agency could fine Facebook up to $40,000 per violation per day. With 87 million users involved, the social media bully could be looking at a fine that could theoretically reach trillions of dollars. 

Google realised early on that the internet allowed market research to be conducted on a massive scale with virtually no outlay, and that was where the true value lay. ‘Cambridge Analytica’, owned by a reclusive billionaire and Trump supporter Robert Mercer, had boasted of its application of personality-based ‘micro-behavioral targeting’ in the Brexit ‘Leave’ and US presidential elections campaigns. One mastermind-turned-whistleblower, Chris Wylie, let it be known that the source of the company’s secret efforts to predict and influence individual voting behavior was none other than Facebook. ‘We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles.’ These psychological profiles of somewhere between 50 and 87 million Facebook users were sold to “Cambridge Analytica” for their cloak-and-dagger shenanigans.This is a scholarly, well-researched, technical book; in fact,126 pages of notes at the back are a testament to the painstaking research carried out by the author, but she does ramble on a bit, bashing the point home like a tent-peg with some fanciful slices of prose cutting into the hard facts.

Having dealt with Google and Facebook, she goes off piste and turns her attention to online gambling and technology addiction, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the hidden complicity between state security agencies and the tech companies, then she meanders around totalitarianism in both Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia, the Berlin Wall and its demolition, subprime mortgages, tracking and listening in through smartphones. It’s enough to make you paranoid.  Anyone will tell you.

Shoshana Zuboff

Profile Books

£25.00    692 pps.

ISBN 978 1 78125 684 8


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