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How Tech Companies Manipulate Our Personal Data

Linked by Paul Ciano on February 11, 2019

Jacob Silverman, The New York Times:

Canadian politicians don’t attract much notice this side of the border, but recently I’ve been heeding the words of Charlie Angus. A member of Canada’s Parliament for the New Democratic Party, Angus is a longtime punk rocker and activist with ties to the Catholic Worker movement; he’s also a sharp critic of the growing power of Big Tech. In late November, Angus attended a hearing in British Parliament in which representatives from nine countries took turns interrogating a Facebook vice president about the company’s proliferating scandals (an empty chair sat before a Mark Zuckerberg nameplate, marking the chief executive’s absence).

For Angus, fake news and data-based manipulation — exemplified by the shadowy work of Cambridge Analytica, whose voter-profiling scheme is often cited as an important factor in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — were mere symptoms of a larger malady. “The problem is Facebook,” he declared. “The problem is the unprecedented economic control of every form of social discourse and communication.” It was one of Angus’s colleagues, the Canadian member of Parliament Bob Zimmer, who may be the one who gave the problem a name: “Surveillance capitalism,” he said, with its vast concentrations of data and influence over human life, required new laws and new forms of regulation.

Both Angus and Zimmer were right…

A Harvard Business School professor emerita with decades of experience studying issues of labor and power in the digital economy, Zuboff in 2015 published a paper, “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization,” which has since become an essential source for anyone looking to reckon seriously with what she described as a distinct, emerging economic logic. Now she has followed up that paper with a doorstop of a book, an intensively researched, engagingly written chronicle of surveillance capitalism’s origins and its deleterious prospects for our society.

According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism distinguishes itself from its industrial forebear as “a new economic order that claims human experience as a free source of raw material.” We are the resource to be mined; the billion-dollar profits of Facebook and Google are built on a general accounting of our lives and everyday behavior. But surveillance capitalism is also many other things: “a parasitic economic logic … a rogue mutation of capitalism … a new collective order based on total certainty” and “an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.”

Surveillance capitalism depends on the constant gathering of “behavioral surplus,” or the data exhaust that we produce as part of the normal course of web browsing, app use and digital consumption. All of it is potentially revealing, allowing companies to make sophisticated inferences about who we are, what we want and what we’re likely to do. As the economist Hal Varian noted in 2002, “Every action a user performs is considered a signal to be analyzed and fed back into the system.” That means that there is potentially no end to a surveillance capitalist’s extractive appetite, which is why — in the name of more efficient services and relevant ads — companies are constantly pursuing new, more granular data streams in our homes, workplaces and bodies. Unlike oil, to which it’s often compared, personal data is potentially limitless, but its extraction and consumption may be just as toxic, as we’re only beginning to understand.

Under the regime of surveillance capitalism, it is not enough simply to gather information about what people do. Eventually, you have to influence behavior, beyond the simple suasion practiced by targeted ads. It’s not about showing someone the right ad; you have to show it at the right place and time, with the language and imagery calibrated for precise effect. You have to lead people through the physical world, making them show up at the sponsored pop-up store or vote for the preferred candidate. Armed with a veritable real-time feed of a user’s thoughts and feelings, companies are beginning to practice just this kind of coercion…

When we want things — health information, travel schedules, a date — is also when we are most vulnerable, when intimate data yield themselves for corporate capture. “The result,” as Zuboff notes, “is a perverse amalgam of empowerment inextricably layered with diminishment.” We seem ever more exposed to and dependent on surveillance capitalists, our benevolent info-lords, but their operations are defined by opacity, corporate secrecy and the scrim of technological authority.

Paul Ciano

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