Data Privacy

The rise of surveillance capitalism – and the lure of a new privacy-driven business horizon

BBC’s Start the Week featured an excellence discussion about surveillance capitalism (you can listen on catch-up here) with Professor Shoshana Zuboff among the guests.

Zuboff, whose book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has just been released, has long been critical of the threat from the combination of capitalism and the digital revolution, as well as the lack of democratic insight that gave a few companies unprecedented power over so many parts of our lives.

She told presenter Andrew Marr that surveillance capitalism is a dark twist on conventional capitalism, in that the commodity for sale is ‘private human experience’, which is claimed by tech titans such as Facebook and Google for free. “Private material for a new kind of production process”, as she termed it.

These companies, she explained, are making money from piles of our behavioural data, which is treated as “propietary surplus for a new company production process”.

This is so valuable because, coupled with machine learning, they can build “predictive patterns of what we will do now, soon and later”.

Because this new marketplace is very lucrative, there is competition for the best data and predictions. And, as she spelled out, to have the best predictions, you need to have the bext predictive data- which means casting your information net very wide. So wide, in fact, that it passes from the online world into real life – where you work, how you sleep etc.

She gave an example of Google Street Cars, which were billed as simply mapping the globe, when actually they were hoovering up all kinds of other data such as IP addresses, as one of the earliest examples of tech companies or services presenting themselves as one thing, when in reality they’re doing something else.

Another guest, the Financial Times‘ Innovations Editor John Thornhill, called these tech titans ‘Siren services’, because the services that they offer are “incredibly seductive products, which we all find incredibly useful.”

Zuboff pointed out that, while this is true to some degree, surveys continually show that once people understand what happens to their data, they are not happy about it. So it’s in the big tech companies’ interests to keep users “ignorant”, to “bypass our decision rights to participate or not.”

She said a related problem was that alternatives to these platforms have gradually been “foreclosed”.

She added: “On the one hand, there has been a failure of democracy; democracy has slept while these operations have flourished, and one the other, it seems it’s a massive market failure, because we really do want something quite different and it’s not on offer.”

She said surveillance capitalism is “the largest asymmetry of power that the world has ever seen – we have institutions that know almost everything about us, and we know almost nothing about them.”

Thornhill said he believed that, as the public woke up to what was happening, they would badger politicians for the equivalent of car airbags on the internet – ie not stop progress, but make it safer to use.

He added (and we couldn’t agree more at!) that there is demand for a more responsible form of capitalism that respects people’s privacy, and that companies would emerge that challenged this.

Zuboff agreed, striking a more positive note for progress, by saying that there was hope for an “alliance of companies that could found a new ecosystem, a new pathway to the digital future that would be new business horizon, that would attract, essentially, every person on earth as a consumer.”

Obviously we hope that is true – for all our sakes.