The tech cartel has been labeled many things. “Attention Merchants” being one of them. In her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff has designated a new category for them: Surveillance Capitalists. “Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.
The Business of the Internet
“When the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote that “surveillance is the business model of the internet,” The Guardian reports, “he was really only hinting at the reality that Zuboff has now illuminated. The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.”
Says Zuboff, “Surveillance capitalism is no more limited to advertising than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Ford Model T. It quickly became the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by nearly every startup and app. And it was a Google executive – Sheryl Sandberg – who played the role of Typhoid Mary, bringing surveillance capitalism from Google to Facebook, when she signed on as Mark Zuckerberg’s number two in 2008. By now it’s no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.”
Surveillance, Manipulation and Control
While surveillance capitalism is not unlike the assembly line in its day, being applied across industry, the overlay is far darker: censorship, which takes us down the slippery slope of control and manipulation.
Google and Apple keep certain products and players who don’t conform to the Silicon Valley talking points out of their app stores. YouTube, Periscope et al will deplatform or de-monetize them. Now there’s Microsoft’s Newsguard, which blacklists news sites whose views are, again, not in lock step with those of the tech cartel. Google and Apple, it seems, are not merely censoring apps in China, but that seems to be the focus of the press. Nothing to see here, it seems, when it takes place closer to home.
Now we learn that Google distributed a private app that monitored how people use their iPhones, in much the same way that Facebook did, basically peddling a data collector through Apple’s back door, as Techcrunch reports.
No one signed up for that.
Ready for Home Surveillance?
The worst is yet to come, with the home becoming increasingly connected. “We should recognize this pattern: Tech that seems like an obvious good can develop darker dimensions as capabilities improve and data shifts into new hands. A terms-of-service update, a face-recognition upgrade or a hack could turn your doorbell into a privacy invasion you didn’t see coming,” notes The Washington Post in this must-read piece: The doorbells have eyes: The privacy battle brewing over home security cameras. Police want to register — and even subsidize — private security cameras. That’s just the start of the ethical challenges ahead.
We already have Nest, Alexa – what to speak of whatever sleepers may be nestled in your various electronics and household staples, waiting to be awakened – listening inside the home. Google Home alone can control over 10,000 smart home devices, including TVs, remote controls, lights, appliances, plugs, thermostats, and more using voice activation. Which means that they’re always listening.
The tech cartel is already holding sway over what is acceptable speech and behavior, considering their censorship of online news and entertainment, with no consideration of the laws of the land. Google photographed every street and house on the planet without asking anyone’s permission. Now we’re steadily giving them access to our homes.
It was Mark Zuckerberg who said that we are the product. Without that, there is no surveillance capitalism.
Have we jumped that shark already? It’s important that we show a bit of forethought rather than hindsight at this juncture. This is an even more dangerous door that we’re opening this time around. Onward and forward.