‘Surveillance capitalism’ threatens our democracies

According to sociologist Shoshana Zuboff, GAFAM has gone from collecting and selling personal data to effectively manipulating people.

The concept of surveillance capitalism refers to the economic model based on the collection and sale of ever more personal data, to the detriment of the privacy of individuals. Over the past twenty years, more and more voices have been raised to explain that the free and commercial web had given birth to a kind of monster.

As early as 1997, the Federal Trade Commission became concerned about the commercialization of personal data by the emerging web sector. But it did not address the problem and the companies assured that they would regulate themselves. Twenty-three years later, these promises are far from being kept.

From the economics of goods to that of data
According to sociologist Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (PublicAffairs), we have moved from a society based on division of labour to one based on the division of knowledge; from ownership of means of production to ownership of means of producing meaning.

In the space of twenty years, Google then Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have built quasi-monopoly and amassed phenomenal amounts of personal data, via surveillance technologies.

For Zuboff, who published a lengthy op-ed in the New York Times entitled “You’re Remote controlled,” surveillance capitalism begins by unilaterally claiming the right to use private human experiences as a raw material free to translate into behavioural data.”

The author notes that an emblematic company of the old economy like Ford is now planning to take part in surveillance capitalism, collecting and selling the information collected about its customers by its vehicles.

Ford “could get rich by monetizing [personal] data. They will not need engineers, factories or vendors to do so. It would be pure profit,” says one analyst.

The more data and the more diverse the data, the more it can be exploited. “They want your car, your medical record and the programs you watch streaming; your address as well as all the streets and buildings of your way and all the behavior of all the people in your city. They want your voice and what you eat and what you buy; Your children’s playtime and schooling your brain waves and your blood system,” Zuboff writes.

From surveillance to manipulation
Some companies now have enough information about us to influence our behaviour in the service of economic objectives, in a shift from “control” to “action”. “We learn how to compose music, and then we let the music make them dance,” says one scientist coolly.

In 2012, Facebook manipulated 700,000 people as part of an experiment testing the platform’s ability to influence their emotions. Two years later, Mark Zuckerberg re-offended with the “I voted” badge to find out if users of the network could be encouraged to vote. The platform concluded that manipulation works and can go unnoticed.

In 2016, the Pokémon Go game , developed jointly by Niantic (formerly Google), The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, launched the sponsored PokéStops. Without necessarily being informed, players were sent to capture Pokémon near establishments such as Starbucks or McDonald’s, which had paid for this service.

In 2017, internal Facebook documents leaked. The platform boasted that it was able to identify when people using the platform, especially young people, felt “stressed,” “defeated,” “outdated,” “anxious,” “nervous,” ‘stupid’, ‘idiots’, ‘useless’ or as ‘rare’. Here, too, Facebook sought to manipulate them, by making them click on advertisements tailored to their need for a confidence boost.

Shoshana Zuboff advocates for genuine public regulation of the sector. “Surveillance capitalism threatens to rebuild society by defeating democracy. […] It undermines free will, usurping privacy [and] diminishing autonomy. […]. Inequality and injustice [in data] are fundamentally incompatible with the aspirations of a democratic people,” she concludes. It may not be too late to act.


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