This is an excellent, must-see Dutch documentary about the drastic inroads Big Tech is making into our lives, centering on the investigations of Harvard Business School professor, Shoshana Zuboff, author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’.
Your personal user data is the New Gold that is being stolen, traded, bought and sold. Everything you do online – and increasingly, offline – is being recorded and sold.
As she says, “The term ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ is not an arbitrary term. Why surveillance? Because, it must be operations that are engineered as undetectable, indecipherable, cloaked in rhetoric that aims to misdirect, obfuscate and just downright bamboozle all of us all the time…
“It’s very difficult to have a concept of this for a very good reason – its not because we’re stupid. It’s because these processes have been disguised. They operate in stealth. They have been engineered to be indecipherable, to be undetectable, to create ignorance in a vast group of all of us that they call ‘users’.
“Our ignorance is their bliss.”
It is a business model that depends on the extraction of what she calls “behavioral surplus” data that is, in turn sold to big businesses who want to maximize our worth to them.
Our data is sold to third parties, who sell it to third parties, ad infinitum. Lord knows where the data ends up and no party takes responsibility for what the party they sold it to does with it.
“We think that the only personal information they have about us is what we’ve given them and we think that we can exert some measure of control over what we give them and therefore, we think that our calculation, our trade-off is something that is under our control, that we we understand it.
“What’s really happening is that we provide personal information but the information that we provide is the LEAST important part of the information that they collect about us…
Zubroff explains how back in the early days, around 2000, 2001, the location- and other data that was involved in providing online services was considered to be “waste material” or “digital exhaust”.
That’s because the 4th Amendment Rights of all users hadn’t been rampantly broken by Big Tech – and more importantly, that we hadn’t yet become habituated to this unlawful invasion of privacy, which runs parallel to the wanton privacy abuses of the Patriot Act. Meanwhile, it became increasingly understood by Big Tech that these waste materials harbored rich predictive data.
All of this “behavioral surplus” from these data streams is being used to build the Internet of Things, which is an online simulation of the physical world, with robust predictive capacities.
Scarier still, it’s been established that this data can be manipulated to influence mass behavior and emotion in the real world – and that this can be done while bypassing user awareness.
A lucrative, global-scale experiment in this that most of us have heard of was the game, Pokémon Go, which herded willing participants along with an ostensible game that was actually about the shadow game of luring them into a place where they were predicted to be – and buy.
“Economies of action using remote-control means to automate behavior, to engineer behavior to fulfill others’ commercial ends – while you are having a great time…
“You are intended to be in the feeling of being served, you are intended to be saturated with convenience, so that you will not notice and you will not complain and all of this shadow operation will remain hidden because you will not ask questions because you’re so busy being entertained.”
It’s no longer enough to know about your browsing habits. They want to know about your walk in the park and what you’re doing in your car and in your home. Businesses are actively moving beyond clickthrough data gathered from what users click on in a webpage into what’s called “footfall” data, that captures the physical behavior of users through geolocation and also data surreptitiously gathered by hidden microphones, as was discovered of the Google Nest SmartHome appliances.
When Google announced that it would now be compatible with its Home Assistant voice-control function, this meant that the device would need to have a microphone. Except that no microphones were advertised or shown in any user schematics of Nest devices. Google claimed the omission was an “error”.
“This is their business: to obfuscate, to misdirect, to engineer our ignorance with mechanisms and methods that are undetectable, indecipherable – and if they confront you, deny it. Deny it for as long as possible until they habituate.”
Investment capital has favored this model so much, that Zubroff calls it the “Surveillance Dividend”. Now car companies are getting in on the action, seeking to get in on the market capitalization of Facebook and Google by re-purposing their cars as surveillance vehicles.
A company like Ford can combine this surveillance data with the data from Ford Credit and the combined data sets can put them on a footing on par with or potentially above that of the biggest surveillance capitalists. “Who wouldn’t want to invest in Ford under those circumstances?” she asks.
Zuboff thinks we’re living in a Faustian bargain and that 21st century citizens shouldn’t have to make the choice between “going analog or living in a world where our self-determination, our privacy are destroyed for the sake of this market logic. That is unacceptable…
“Surveillance capitalism is unprecedented so we’re going to need the laws and the regulatory regimes that respond directly to these new, unprecedented operations.”
The EU’s new GDPR regulations on Big Tech only address the overt user information, they don’t address the much more massive “behavioral surplus” of footfall-, and voice-, facial recognition data, etc.
“They claim them as data that they own. They took it from our lives, they took it from our private experience, without our permission, they analyzed the data, they made it into products, they sold the products and they took the profit. Illegitimate profit. Because they took it at the beginning without asking, without our knowledge – recall – bypassing our awareness.
“These 20 years have been a honeymoon for surveillance capitalism, because they have been 20 years largely unimpeded by law…why? Well, the most important reason is that they’re doing things that have never been done before so there are no laws against it…We haven’t even tried yet to stop it.
“Look. Surveillance capitalism is 20 years old. Democracy is several centuries old. I bet on democracy.”