Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Confronting Surveillance Capitalism

-- By CorinneShim - 01 Oct 2017


Surveillance capitalism is a problem because it reinforces private power and government power at the expense of individual autonomy. Now is a good time to have a conversation about how to remove ourselves from this system.

Surveillance Capitalism Reinforces Private Power

Surveillance capitalism reinforces private power because its business model is based on extracting data from human beings and selling this data to advertisers who can use that information to increase consumption behavior.(1) The goal of surveilling companies is to encourage us to consume a surveillance product (a search engine, a cell phone, a social media platform) so that they can collect our data and sell it to advertising companies. The goal of advertising companies is to use more data to better target and sell their products. Together, those in the business of consumption now have the behavioral data available to understand how to create a demand in a target audience, approximate a personal demand curve, and extract the maximum price at which we buy a product. (2) Companies can do this both by advertising and selling online, or by advertising online and selling offline. (3) When we consume surveillance products (social network platforms, search engines, cell phones) and allow our every quantifiable activity to be recorded and analyzed and sold to third parties, we become participants of this process of consumption.

The problem with surveillance capitalism reinforcing the powers of those that promote consumption is that once we give away our data, we become a part of the consumption process. Surveillance companies create information asymmetries as a business model; they are in the business of extracting as much data as possible from participants and then selling that information to clients. This is an unequal power dynamic, in which those that surveil receive information and power and those that are surveilled lose their information and power. As the information and power asymmetry grows, the surveilled are further pressured to align with the desires and preferences of those who surveil. (4) In the case of making profit, this means being subjected to ever increasing levels of surveillance and consumption until we, the raw material behind data-mining, are being extracted at full capacity and have nothing left to give.

Surveillance Capitalism Reinforces Government Power

Surveillance capitalism reinforces government power because it provides the government with information, and thus, power. Power is dependent on information. As access to information accumulates in a small group of individuals while surveillance increases in the general population, power moves from the general population to a concentrated group of individuals. (5) Government power is reinforced when private companies give information about individuals gathered from surveillance to the government without regard to that individual’s privacy rights. As of February 2013, “Tens of thousands of accounts associated with customers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Yahoo have their data turned over to US government authorities every six months as the result of secret court orders.” (6) In the previous section, I explained why the information asymmetry between the surveilled and those that surveil was problematic because it placed pressure on those without information (individuals) to align to the needs of those with more power (private companies). With governments, this information asymmetry becomes much worse. Governments already have a disproportionate power over the individual; surveillance simply increases the power that was already there and creates conditions for many kinds of power abuse.

Governments have already begun to abuse their reinforced powers. Our government uses the data to engage in “social sorting,” which “[categorizes] personal data such that people thus classified may be treated differently,” both at the local level and at the national security level (7) China has taken social sorting to the next level; in July 2017, China’s government ordered residents in northwest Xinjiang to install spyware on their phone, which included “remote control and other security services.” (8) Surveillance capitalism reinforces the power of governments everywhere, and creates conditions in which it is very easy to abuse that power. This is a problem for those that do not want to live under governments that can easily abuse their powers.

Confronting Surveillance Capitalism

How do we best confront surveillance capitalism? Some have suggested that we have created a society that requires surveillance in exchange for modern living and accept this as the new social contract. (9) As this paper has framed surveillance capitalism as a problem that induces exploitative behavior from private and government entities, I prefer acceptance to not be the solution, and have outlines some steps to extricate society from this problem.

The first step to extricating society from surveillance capitalism is to decide that it is possible to extricate oneself from surveillance capitalism. This step is critical psychologically, because without it, every step that follows comes with a sense of inevitable failure, as the project is rather large, even at the individual level.

The second step is to decide what level of surveillance is acceptable. To decide what level of surveillance is acceptable is to decide what level of privacy is sufficient for us as individuals, and how much work will need to be done to get there. If we just want Facebook to stop directly collecting our behavior, we can stop using Facebook. If we want Google to stop scanning all e-mails, not just ours, the work to be done is a little bit different.

The third step is to start extricating oneself from surveillance capitalism, one step at a time. The level of integration we have with surveillance capitalism is dependent on the community that we exist in, but as we being to extricate ourselves, we will start destabilizing the acceptance of other members of our community, which, if done correctly, can produce network effects that can weaken surveillance capitalism.

The final step is to act now. Surveillance capitalism reinforces private and government power every day at our expense. There is no reason to wait for the information asymmetry to worsen.

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1 : Shoshana Zuboff, "Big Other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization"

2 : Jerry Useem, "How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All"

3 : Cade Metz, "How Facebook Knows When its Ads Influence your Offline Purchases"

4 : Geoffrey Lightfoot & Tomasz Piotr Wisniewski, "Information asymmetry and power in a surveillance society"

5 : Geoffrey Lightfoot & Tomasz Piotr Wisniewski, "Information asymmetry and power in a surveillance society"

6 : Spencer Ackerman & Dominic Rush, "Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Yahoo release US surveillance requests"

7 : David Lyon, Surveillance, Security, and Social Sorting"

8 : Radio Free Asia, "China Orders Xinjiang's Android Users to Install App That Deletes 'Terrorist' Content"

9 : Simon Chesterman, One Nation Under Surveillance


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r1 - 01 Oct 2017 - 20:14:07 - CorinneShim
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