The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – Book Review

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – Book Review

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Kurt Hornburg, September 9th The human consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic are horrific and length of time before a ‘new normal’ is reached is still unknown. Economically, the scale and severity of the crisis is almost without precedent. However, we should also be aware that historically, crises have resulted in changes in powers granted to our governments, often with adverse effects on our privacy and civil liberties.

Shoshana Zuboff, in her voluminous 691-page book, documents this phenomenon in the aftermath of the 911 World Trade Center attack, when new powers and measures were granted to the US government. These additional powers and temporary intrusions on civil liberties, were for the most part, continued after the 911 crisis had ended.

However, this book is not focused on government actions but rather on surveillance by companies. The surveillance of government and firms are often closely intertwined, as most countries require or can request firms to share data for modelling location and proximity to others. Google has released location information from their trove of data rather late, showing the results of social distancing by country.

We are regularly reminded of firms’ ever deeper intrusions into our personal lives tapping data from emerging ‘data goldmines’. The raw data from our connections, location, purchases, interests as well as our emotions and biometrics.

In the Economist article, “Love the way you walk”, researchers at the University Manchester published a study, which found AI can analyze footstep data patterns to identify individuals with a mere 0.7% error rate. Recently, AI start-ups have developed a system collecting data from the multitude of phone sensors. Unique ID uses accelerometers and gyroscopes – to identify an individual’s unique phone footprint. The data can reveal personal information on location, health and lifestyle without the user’s knowledge.

Despite being aware of the data breaches and misuses of our data, we are becoming increasingly dependent on mega-firms’ services, which offer micro-optimized, frictionless and somewhat addictive engagement. Many of us have heard someone say, ‘I have nothing to hide’. Personalization and targeted advertising do not seem so threatening in exchange for really good, easy to use services.

Do we understand how we got here, how it works and what the future implications might be?  Do we really have the tech ecosystem literacy to make informed decisions? Shoshana Zuboff coined the term “surveillance capitalism” in 2014 to describe the methods technology firms use to claim our private experiences and turn them into their products.  She is a Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School; her approach is that of a social scientist.

The author weaves together an evolutionary, detailed account of how this happened. First, surveillance capital firms masked their intent in the trojan horse of progress; access to information, giving power to people, etc. Second, users did not and could not be expected to understand the evasive technology nor the power granted by privacy policies and terms-of-use, which were expanding the scope of surveillance. Third, they were seldom challenged because laws to limit their activities were outdated, so they benefited from ‘legal exceptionalism’, basically they knew they could do whatever they wanted. The awareness of the user and the regulators were many steps behind. Fourth, it is unprecedented – we have trouble recognizing a phenomenon we have never been confronted with.

Surveillance capitalists have leveraged changes identified by trend researcher Matthias Horx – people are overwhelmed with information and digitally exhausted. They seek order and direction in their lives. Convenience of being connected, especially mobile, is readily accepted. The pitch is seductive, the trade-off, however, is the loss of privacy.

We have become passive consumers because the technical and business model is so abstract; it is difficult to make decisions regarding the trade-offs involved. However, an important point is that surveillance capitalism is a business model and much different from the enabling technology.

In the author’s words, “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into predictive products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these predictive products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral futures markets”. (“Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff).  These AI generated behavior predictions are then sold into a new marketplace, hence the term ‘capitalism’ in the term.

The author argues that firms’ intervening, to shape and modify users’ behavior is being done without our awareness to serve their goals. In by-passing our awareness, users’ decisions and autonomy are under assault. Noteworthy is the author’s reference to the influential book “Social Physics”, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland. Through the use of metadata- the millions of breadcrumbs our digital devices leave behind, Pentland developed the prediction and shaping of human behavior into a science. His research showed this can be done without the actual content. The principals of Social Physics have been readily adopted and are the driver behind technology companies’ insatiable desire for the data to quantify every aspect of our lives.

The leading technology companies have an unprecedented, ever growing amount of data. Leading scholars agree that this puts them in a very advantageous position. They have economies of scale, scope and have captured the cognitive talent to dominate AI, according to Glen Weyl at Yale University.  These concerns are echoed by Roger McNamee in his book, “Zucked, Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe”.

Not everyone agreed with the conclusions in the book. The Economist article, “Is Google an evil genius?”, acknowledged the tactics used by the technology companies. However, they feel the author is much too harsh in her criticism, overlooking the benefits of ‘everyone being connected’ and ‘users’ freedom’ to switch to search engine alternatives such as DuckDuckGo. 

AI and big data can help us solve both the Climate and Covid-19 crisis. The  partnership between Apple and Google to develop a Corona App was positive in its implementation, that is  to store contact data locally rather than centrally. Many countries were demanding central storage with government access. The refusal of the tech giants to acquiesce to tremendous pressure from nation-state’s for central storage access, illustrates their power.

However, recently it was revealed that the Corona apps only function on Google’s Android if the GPS location is activated, so Google is still able to determine users’ location.

Some observers have suggested that ’California’s law is the biggest U.S. effort yet to confront surveillance capitalism’.  This underestimates the efficient predictive products derived from ‘behavioral surplus’, with users’ consent. The California law is not likely to deter the business model of Google and Facebook in using behavioral data for sophisticated AI predictive products. Likewise, some critics have characterized the GDPR as, ‘the kind of the dog that didn’t bite’, although it may be too early to judge its effectiveness.

Title Image (c) Obert Madondo

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