Search for something innocuous like a pair of shoes, protein powder, or vacation ideas, and you know what happens next: Ads about similar products or services follow us around as we navigate the web.
This phenomenon was once creepy, but it now happens with such regularity that we’re accustomed to it as a fact of modern life. We roll our eyes, fire off an angry tweet or two, talk about it over drinks with friends, but then move on to another topic.
And once we’re done with our evening, we use Maps to navigate home, post a review on Yelp, snap a brag for Instagram, and climb into the Uber we hailed a few minutes ago.
All the while, tech companies are recording—and profiting off—our every move. There’s a term for this sort of invasive data-tracking: surveillance capitalism.
[Interested in more privacy hot takes? Sign up for the ExpressVPN newsletter.]
Coined by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is the commoditization of our personal data and relies on tracking algorithms and behavior monitoring. It’s the main reason search engines and social media platforms can offer their services for free.
Zuboff describes surveillance capitalism as “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets—business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later.”
The knowledge and surveillance economy
The proliferation of the internet has intensified the shift towards a services and knowledge-based economy, with many manufacturing jobs moving away from the West towards Asia and the global South.
Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism is part of this evolution of capitalism. And it’s hard to disagree with her on that.
Using tracking-based advertising models that keep an eye on our online behavior—such as the posts we like, our web searches, the pages we follow, and our e-commerce transactions—tech companies have created an ecosystem of surveillance-based business models.
Machines for helping people with sleep apnea are secretly relaying data back to insurers to justify lower payouts. Bluetooth-enabled toothbrushes that track how often people brush their teeth help insurers determine dental premiums. Transport for London, the government body responsible for the city’s transportation system, once estimated it could sell users’ location data collected through its free Wi-Fi program for over 300 million GBP.
But these figures pale in comparison with the amount of money that the world’s top web companies are raking in. Google made 138 billion USD in advertising revenue in 2019 alone, accounting for nearly 70% of total revenue. That’s billion with a B.
Facebook’s advertising revenue reaches 70 billion USD, making up 98% of its total pie. In contrast, NBC, one of the oldest television networks in the U.S., only earned 5.7 billion USD in advertising revenue in 2019. How have tech companies won the ad-sales game? It’s their relentless pursuit of user data. They possess a wealth of information about their users and they can offer that to the advertisers on their respective platforms.
The advertisers, in turn, benefit from the ability to target specific users. So while large tech companies aren’t selling data to third parties, they’re definitely hoarding as much of it as they can to train their algorithms and make it ridiculously easy to chase you around on the internet.
Tracking and surveillance capitalism aren’t going away anytime soon. The future of several of the world’s richest companies depends on it. And our dependence on the internet, particularly free search and social networking services, is only going to intensify with time.
Technology and the ubiquity of smartphone applications has undoubtedly made our lives more convenient, but at what cost?
How does surveillance capitalism affect me?
Some might shrug their shoulders and say that the lack of privacy is a fair tradeoff for all the free services we get on the internet. I don’t have anything to hide, so it’s okay for companies to track my activity and sell the data to the highest bidder.
Little do we know that the algorithms at play affect our subconscious state of mind to a potentially debilitating degree.
The future profits of tech companies relies on their ability to accurately predict behavioral patterns. This leads to more algorithms that prioritize engagement and cater overwhelmingly to our echo chamber.
Zuboff refers to this behavior as the “economies of action,” which formulates our worldview by rewarding specific outcomes and discouraging others. Every time we “like” a post or comment on another, we’re training the algorithm to understand our unique preferences. The end result is that we see more content that appeals to our current opinions.
Our ability to make independent decisions is abrogated as is the possibility of free will and critical thought. If all we read and hear corresponds to our existing worldview, then what incentive do we have to ponder different opinions?
It’s almost impossible to hear opposing views because we’re deluged with so much information that we have little capacity to consider them.
Think about it: if there’s one thing that people from across the political spectrum agree on, it’s that social media networks treat them unfairly. Conservative voices maintain that the algorithms are designed to drown out their views. Liberals believe that the same networks aren’t doing enough to fact check or suppress misinformation. The EARN IT bill, designed to regulate tech companies, is supported by both sides.
And yet, tech executives plead neutrality. They say their networks are designed to promote free speech, not favor one group over another. The fact is, at the end of the day, they favor themselves, driving profit through engagement.
There’s no easy way out of this quagmire, unfortunately. Legislation to regulate tech companies, as demonstrated by the EARN IT Act, is probably not far away, but we’ll have to see what sort of effect it has. The encouraging thing is that more people are aware of the invasiveness of tracking algorithms and its deleterious effects on privacy. And they’re demanding change.