May 20, 2021

Are we thinking about Surveillance Capitalism the right way?

surveillance capitalism

I recently purchased a greenhouse from a well-known catalogue retailer – now I’m swamped with Google and Facebook ads for greenhouse accessories and all manner of gardening paraphernalia. Ever wonder why this happens? The answer is that our data is systematically captured and then used to market to us, in a broad-scale set of processes known collectively as surveillance capitalism – a set of processes that are both pervasive and here to stay. While many of us dismiss the bombardment of ads as trivial, there are those who would argue that we need to be more au fait about this use of our data. While many people debate the intentions of those who conduct and profit from surveillance capitalism, the real concerns may be not simply the amassing of an incredible volume of personal data and its unprecedented synthesis; but moreover, the normalization of the surveillance techniques themselves that can fall into anyone’s hands.

What is surveillance capitalism?

The term surveillance capitalism was coined in 2014 by Shoshana Zuboff – a Harvard Business School Professor. In a book of the same name by Zuboff, she imparts that surveillance capitalism is an economic system centered around the commodification of personal data with the core purpose of profit-making. She states that surveillance capitalism claims our private digital experience as its source of free raw material and translates that raw material into behavioral data. In layman terms, surveillance capitalism outlines how commercial corporations – such as Google and Facebook – use data harvested from us to sell advertising, goods, and services. If anything, surveillance capitalism could be described as the business model of the internet.

Big Brother is watching, and we appear to be okay with it

Google pioneered surveillance capitalism – they were the first company to tap into this new form of profit-making. Now, it dominates the market. Tech companies, data brokers and other players continuously capture as much user data as possible not only to predict our behavior but also to influence and modify it so that can be further used for commercial purposes. With so much to gain from digital data, surveillance capitalism is a trend that has spread far beyond big tech companies.Every bank, insurance company, supermarket, mobile phone operator, etc., now has its own surveillance capitalism strategy in place. Zuboff believes that this surveillance by private firms is a crisis as serious as climate change. She argues that it is a visible power grab that wields enormous economic and political influence. Should we really be more concerned about this state of affairs?

Many of us know and are aware that our data is being taken without our knowledge. We know big companies use data to manipulate us into becoming more predictable and more reliable consumers. As consumers we recognize that privacy concerns must be balanced against other societal goods. Some might say that what they are doing is really just marketing that has been adapted and updated for the digital era.

Many digital companies have been upfront about the trade-offs involved in using their products. Even Zuboff herself notes, “Privacy, they said, was the price one must pay for the abundant rewards of information, connection, and other digital goods when, where, and how you want them.”

It is interesting how the public view of privacy can quickly change based on our perception of who is collecting information and why. Generally, when it appears that we are getting back some perceived economic value, we have a mixed response to surveillance. But when it comes to government surveillance, the public broadly disapproves of invasions of privacy – even though the government utilizes the same core technology and collects the same sorts of data as the private sector. Events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Edward Snowden’s historic leak of US surveillance efforts highlighted the risk of political manipulation through data exploitation and reinforced public concerns around government surveillance and inference, weakening public trust.

The real security risk of surveillance capitalism

The morality and legality of commercial and governmental surveillance is often in the news. Less discussed however are the increased security risks the surveillance capitalism model creates for companies, governments, and individuals. Commercial and government data troves are, simply put, targets for social engineers. And the wealth of data underpinning surveillance capitalism is not just itself susceptible to attacks: it enables more effective social engineering crimes when accessed, in large part by adopting the same targeting techniques used by cutting-edge marketeers.

Data captured via surveillance capitalism can include details pertaining to finances, personal interests, consumption patterns, medical history, career path – in short, the raw material needed to carry out crimes like identity theft, business email compromise and even extortion and blackmail. It helps threat actors reach users across the web with ease and little oversight, since so much of the synthesis is automated. The bottom line is surveillance capitalism makes it relatively easy for bad guys to get their hands on rich data sets of highly personal information. It provides them with a substantial search facility to find and profile their next target and victim.

Data is not necessarily dangerous by itself. We all leave data trails as we live our digital life. Unconnected bits of data in an ocean of similar data don’t provide much of a foothold to cyber criminals. But surveillance capitalism has created an incentive to be much smarter about the synthesis of data. Now companies (and governments) are pulling all those data trails together to create a fuller picture of ‘you.’ Suddenly, everything is in one place. It is the concentration and rationalization of the data that now provides bad actors an easy way to steal identities and worse.

And the risk doesn’t end there. The science and techniques for surveillance, tracking and synthesis are being constantly improved. These same techniques can easily be weaponized if they fall into the wrong hands. So, whether or not a commercial enterprise has the intent to do harm or manipulate you may miss the larger point. Social engineers are like bees to honey for the data and methods of surveillance capitalism. The real concern is whether the many ‘well-intentioned” companies now storing gobs of sensitive information can keep your personal data secure.

Surveillance capitalism: The bigger picture

There is no denying that we’re fundamentally willing to exchange some measure of privacy for convenience. We also know that steps, albeit baby ones, have and continue to be taken around privacy and the right to be forgotten. But we also need to acknowledge the bigger issue of surveillance capitalism: it is not immune to surveillance itself and the personal data that it reaps may put us all in danger.

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