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The Dark Side of Surveillance Capitalism

Big Data has revolutionised marketing, pervading every aspect of our lives, sometimes detrimentally. Read on to discover the dangers of surveillance capitalism

What is Surveillance Capitalism?

Surveillance capitalism is a market driven process where the item for sale is your personal data, relying on mass surveillance of the internet to capture and process this. Using search engines, like Google or Yahoo, or engaging on social media platforms, indirectly allows these companies to collect and analyse your online behaviour, providing them access to your likes, dislikes, searches and purchases. This data is then used by these big tech firms to target specific ads, or instead sold to third party data-brokers to do with it as they wish.

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”

Shoshana Zuboff

Although big data may have been created simply to improve marketing strategies, its scope and effect has gone far beyond this. Today, nearly every aspect of our lives is collected and sorted into massive data stores that are then fed into algorithms and used to predict a variety of behaviours. Consumers vastly underestimate the data that is gathered from them and the fact that it can be bought, sold and manipulated for financial gain. Consumers must educate themselves on the negative aspects of surveillance capitalism to ensure that they are not being taken advantage of within this new business environment.

Information Asymmetry & Privacy

Surveillance capitalism has resulted in an increasingly transparent citizenry and threatens the privacy of consumers. The power is now mainly in the hands of big tech companies like Google, who undertake pervasive mechanisms of extraction. This creates a substantial information asymmetry between the consumer and the firm, reducing consumers’ awareness and understanding of these invasive data mining practices (a fact that these big data companies depend on).

Photo of instagram app on iPhone where surveillance capitalism occurs

A photo uploaded to Instagram provides a lot more information than its submitter intended. Instagram posts are filtered through object and facial recognition programs and sold to third party data brokers, with no data usage regulation.
This surveillance is regularly done under the illusion of convenience and ‘free’ access to websites. However, sharing can come at the high ‘price’ of unwanted privacy leakage.

Companies like Google and Facebook have found ways to hide their data mining operations. To use their sites, individuals must agree to privacy terms that are written under vague and complex language. For example, a study discovered that it takes 8 hours and 59 minutes to read Amazon’s Kindle terms and conditions. Consumers agree to their data being taken, but don’t actually understand what these companies are doing with it. This false ‘illusion of voluntariness’ provides big data companies free rein over consumer data. 

Clearly surveillance capitalism thrives from this information asymmetry. With richly informed companies leaving individuals in the dark. Faster search-results and convenience mask the deeper, destructive nature of big data.  

Surveillance Capitalism & Discrimination

One of the most troubling issues related to surveillance capitalism is its discriminatory nature. Big data can both include and exclude individuals from various socio-economic opportunities. Surveillance capitalism plays an important role in creating consumer profiles, that classify individuals into simplified groupings. Marketers can then use these when promoting a product to reach a specific target. This practice heedlessly opens the door to discriminatory or inaccurate classifications.

Companies can also create algorithms allowing them to engage in illegal forms of discrimination, using proxy datasets to hide these oppressive practices. These algorithms are designed to intentionally avoid advertising to users believed to be undesirable, preventing them from accessing certain opportunities. These classifications can lead to differential pricing, predatory lending to vulnerable groups and racial profiling.

Surveillance Capitalism is Everywhere

It is now virtually impossible to completely avoid this form of surveillance. With it becoming more and more difficult to live without technology, companies have made it almost impossible to use their sites without providing them access to your personal data.

Even people who do not use technology at all still have their personal information sold. Big data can gain access through offline surveillance and second-hand through friends and family. For example, Google’s street view vehicles were marketed as a way of mapping the world. However, they were also gathering data from unencrypted WIFI routers, and even mapping the interior layouts of homes.

The fact that you cannot ‘opt out’ of surveillance capitalism poses a serious threat to the privacy and autonomy of consumers.

The Case Of Cambridge Analytica

Surveillance capitalism has gone far beyond simply collecting individuals’ data, it also seeks to shape and influence our behaviours. The case of Cambridge Analytics is a prime example of how companies can use these data profiles to target and manipulate large populations.

Photograph of Donald Trump during his 2016 election campaign
Donald Trump during his 2016 Election Campaign

Cambridge Analytica, a political data analysis firm, gathered private information from over 50 million Facebook users without their consent. This information was used to create personalised messages encouraging US voters to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections.

When news broke of this scandal, Cambridge Analytica were forced to close. However, nothing was really said about the broader conditions that made this violation possible.

This scandal is an example of how subliminal cues used online can manipulate real world behaviour. The amount of data acquired in this case is minuscule compared to the likes of Google. The only difference is that Cambridge Analytica used more underhanded means to get access to it.

This case demonstrates Big Data’s potentially detrimental effect on social, economic and political autonomy (read more on this topic).

Looking to the Future

The digitally mediated world we live in can seem like a very scary place, with good reason. Recently however, there have been some improvements in data privacy, such as Google planning to ban 3rd party cookies. But is this enough?

We as consumers need to take the power back into our own hands. The best way to do this – be well informed. Companies continue to hide their actions from us, particularly when it comes to how they use our data. We have the responsibility to hold these firms accountable and call for change in their policies.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the dangers of surveillance capitalism, continue your own personal search to find ways you can help in the fight against data invasion.