Updated: Mar 29
Opinion by Jami McElrea
Capitalism has evolved through several stages, from industrial to managerial to financial and now to surveillance. Surveillance capitalism functions by providing free services for billions to use, while the providers of those services monitor the detailed behaviors of the users, usually without their explicit consent . Shoshana Zuboff, writer of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, explains that “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims all human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data” . Technology giants enabled by weak regulatory oversight are infringing on the individual’s right to consent by collecting their personal data in mass for commercial interests . Under surveillance capitalism, individuals' daily experiences are claimed by private companies and translated into proprietary data flows. While some of this data may be used to improve services, the majority is considered “behavioral surplus” and is valued for its ability to predict human behavior which is utilized to increase profits .
"While surveillance capitalism is used by Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon, it was refined by Google, similarly to how managerial capitalism was refined by General Motors"
Google invented surveillance capitalism in 2001 as a solution for its financial troubles. It boosted revenue by using exclusive access to user data logs in coordination with their computational power to generate predictors of user click through rates, which demonstrated an ad’s relevance . While surveillance capitalism is used by Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon, it was refined by Google, similarly to how managerial capitalism was refined by General Motors but has been used universally . Nowadays, nearly every “smart” product, internet enabled device, and digital assistant is a supply chain interface for behavioral data, meaning they are constantly collecting your personal data from your everyday interactions .
The core of surveillance capitalism is firstly that there must be an abundance of data, and companies use economies of scale to be most profitable . Secondly, the best predictions also require a diversity of data, from where you eat to what you talk about over coffee to more in-depth data about your face, voice, personality, and emotions . Thirdly, the most predictive data arises from intervening in human action to coax, herd and modify the behavior of individuals or groups in the direction of guaranteed outcomes .
"...surveillance capitalism in its many forms can change behaviors and even influence people to go to certain places without participants knowing that they are following manipulative directions."
The attempt to modify behavior for commercial interests without an individual’s knowledge presents a shift from knowledge accumulation to power. Data protection scholars Malgieri and Comandé argue that ‘oftentimes, these algorithms are not only unknown but also unintelligible by individuals’ . Tech giants benefit from keeping individuals in the dark about how their data is being used and profited from. This new power is subtle, using the internet and social media to shape behaviors so that they align with corporate gain.
The Google augmented reality game Pokémon Go is a primary example of surveillance capitalism. Those participating were not only playing a virtual phone game, as they were being intentionally herded into restaurants, bars, and fast-food shops that had paid for guaranteed foot traffic . This demonstrates how surveillance capitalism in its many forms can change behaviors and even influence people to go to certain places without participants knowing that they are following manipulative directions. Additionally, Facebook discovered how to engineer subliminal cues and social comparison dynamics on Facebook pages to shift users' real-world behavior and emotions, all in bypassing the user’s awareness of how they were being exploited . As it became more efficient, industrial capitalism perpetually intensified means of production, while surveillance capitalism attempts to augment means of behavioral modification, which works best when individuals are unaware of what is happening.
The European Union has recognized the potential ramifications of behavioral analytics on the individual . Surveillance capitalism capitalizes on profile-targeted marketing and nudge economics to exploit consumer vulnerabilities for profit . Thus, the EU has adopted the General Data Protection Regulation to emphasize individual privacy and to place limits on corporate use of personal data. The GDPR was implemented in 2018 after a two-year transitional period and is one of the most robust data privacy laws in the world .
"While most democratic societies have some oversight over state surveillance, there is almost none for privatized surveillance on the internet."
The goal of GDPR is to enhance the degree of control ordinary citizens have over their personal data, and to use regulations to limit corporation’s collection and use of personal data, thereby hindering surveillance capitalism . Articles 13 and 14 on the right to notification highlight the GDPR’s purpose of safeguarding individual rights. Under these articles all users must be informed on how their data is being used and be given the opportunity to opt in or out of the process . Moreover, consent must be given freely without coercion or entrapment, so corporations cannot provide extra services to those who agree to share personal information . Under article 15 on the right to access, individuals have authority to view data held on them and withdraw it if they so wish .
Surveillance capitalism serves primarily corporate elite interest, and actively benefits from the ignorance of those it is collecting data from. GDPR is a safeguarding response of transparency for the individual . It is built on the notion of personal consent and empowerment through awareness in contrast to the behavioral modification for commercial interests that is surveillance capitalism.
If “[s]urveillance is the business model of the internet” , then in most cases the business is being conducted in a law-free territory. While most democratic societies have some oversight over state surveillance, there is almost none for privatized surveillance on the internet. While the European Union’s GDPR is not perfect, and corporate entities have and will continue to attempt to work around this to maximize profit, some regulatory oversight is preferred to none. Other countries should strive to replicate and improve upon the regulations of the GDPR to protect individual consent and personal data.
Naughton, John. "'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism; Shoshana Zuboff's new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff's work and asks the author 10 key questions". The Observer(London), January 20, 2019. https://advance-lexiscom.proxy.library.carleton.ca/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:co ntentItem:5V7H -9G61-JCJY-G32W-00000-00&context=1516831.
Zuboff Shoshana. "The cost of surveillance capitalism". Mail & Guardian. January 3, 2020. https://advance-lexiscom.proxy.library.carleton.ca/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:c ontentItem:5XXB -6X41-F198-M185-00000-00&context=1516831.
Aho, Brett, and Roberta Duffield. “Beyond Surveillance Capitalism: Privacy, Regulationand Big Data in Europe and China.” Economy and Society 49, no. 2 (April 2, 2020): 187– 212.doi:10.1080/03085147.2019.1690275.
European Union. 2016, May 4 EU General Data Protection Regulation (EU-GDPR).Retrieved from http://www.privacy-regulation.eu/en/
Malgieri, Gianclaudio, and Giovanni Comandé. 2017. “Why a Right to Legibility of Automated Decision-Making Exists in the General Data Protection Regulation.”International Data Privacy Law 7 (4): 243–65. https://doi.org/10.1093/idpl/ipx019.