The Road to Surveillance Capitalism is Paved with Likes & Mentions

I first heard the term ‘surveillance capitalism‘ a few years ago, and when I saw it I immediately knew exactly what it meant. It gave me chills. Let’s go down the rabbit hole on this one.

When the Consumer is the Product

For me, the concept ‘surveillance capitalism‘ seems to be intertwined with a statement that made its way into our lives back in 2010, courtesy of Andrew Lewis:

Andrew first posted that statement as a comment on a MetaCritic post about the release of Digg 4.0, which many Redditors might remember lead to the ‘The Great Digg Migration‘. Digg v4 was so bad that there was a mass exodus away from Digg to Reddit. As a rabid user of both platforms at the time, I was heavily disappointed both with the new Digg v4 and also with the rapid change that it brought to the culture and style of Reddit. But that’s another blog post altogether.

In addition to its appearance on MetaCritic, Andrew’s statement would be tweeted by a VC named Bryce Roberts, retweeted by Tim O’Reilly, pick up a lot of traction over the next several years, and ultimately be shortened to something much more memorable and easier to remember:

If it’s free, you are the product.

That is a statement that hits me in the soul every time I read it. It feels icky, especially because I am certain that most people are unaware of the true nature of the business goals of tech companies and/or the breadth and scope of digital surveillance.

Facebook & Your Data

On January 24, 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg penned an Op-Ed column in the Wall Street Journal. In a world full of fake news and fake news accusations, Mark found the perfect title for his article: The Facts About Facebook. Of course, as America will do to people these days, he got slammed by Pretty. Much. Everyone.

To be clear, I’m not here to celebrate or criticize his column. I’m primarily interested in the one section that is most relevant to my article:

“In an ordinary transaction, you pay a company for a product or service they provide. Here you get our services for free—and we work separately with advertisers to show you relevant ads. This model can feel opaque, and we’re all distrustful of systems we don’t understand. ​

Sometimes this means people assume we do things that we don’t do. For example, we don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do. In fact, selling people’s information to advertisers would be counter to our business interests, because it would reduce the unique value of our service to advertisers. We have a strong incentive to protect people’s information from being accessed by anyone else.”

– Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook (Jan. 24, 2019)

Among the several pieces I read in response to Mark’s WSJ Op-Ed piece, perhaps the best was from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org):

“Next, Zuckerberg deploys Facebook’s favorite PR red herring: he says that Facebook does not sell your data. It may be the case that Facebook does not transfer user data to third parties in exchange for money. But there are many other ways to invade users’ privacy. For example, the company indisputably does sell access to users’ personal information in the form of targeted advertising spots. No matter how Zuckerberg slices it, Facebook’s business model revolves around monetizing your data.”

– Gennie Gebhart, Jason Kelley, and Bennett Cyphers (Jan. 25, 2019)

Regardless of how you interpret his wording, Mark Zuckerberg is now on record saying Facebook doesn’t sell our data.

Apple & Your Data

In August 2018, Tim Powderly, Apple’s Director of Federal Government Affairs, responded to a letter from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In his response, Tim made Apple’s position on user privacy unequivocally clear:

“The customer is not our product, and our business model does not depend on collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable information to enrich targeted profiles marketed to advertisers.”

– Tim Powderly, Apple (Aug. 7, 2018)

If you’re keeping score at home, so far we know that Facebook is not selling our data and the customer is not Apple’s product.

Google & Your Data

In December 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee . After delivering his written testimony, he answered direct questions from members of the committe, most of which were focused on political bias, misinformation, user privacy, and data security. Basically, he was there to discuss how Google uses its customers’ data.

In the video above – courtesy of Yahoo.com – Sundar directly says:

As a company, we do not sell user data. That would be against our principles.

Sundar Pichai, Google, CEO (Dec. 11, 2018)

Like they do with most things related to public perception, Google has also gone the extra mile to create a small microsite of sorts with more information on its data practices.

Google Data Privacy
Google Data Privacy

Well, there you have it — Facebook, Apple, and Google are not selling our data. Okay. My next question is: What is this data that they are not selling?

The Behavioral Side of Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

I consider my privacy almost every time I sign up for a newsletter, download a “free” app, turn on my smart TV, use my iPhone, watch Netflix, turn on Waze for a trip, send a message through Facebook Messenger, like a picture on Instagram, etc… Technically, it is not sensitive data, but it is sensitive to me.

Sometimes I give in and give my email to get that cool new app. Yet, other times, I’ll walk away from something like that because I value my privacy more at that point in time. But let’s be honest – there is no such thing as privacy any more. Every “smart” device is listening and tracking, storing and sending, collecting and selling. And it’s not just our email address, phone number, physical address, gender, marital status, age, income, etc… It’s much, much more.

There is probably a much better name for this particular aspect of PII, but I refer to it as behavioral data privacy, which consists of information such as: where I am now, where I was earlier, what I bought today, when I left to go to work, how long I slept last night at night, how times I picked up my phone, how many screens I scrolled on Instagram, etc… Combined with our personal data, our behavioral data is critical to complete the picture of who we are as a consumer and which audiences we fit into for potential advertisers.

All of our data is out there for the taking, both personal and behavioral. Because of this I am exceedingly concerned with websites and apps that are collecting, compiling, and sharing all of that data without my knowledge – and sometimes, without my consent.

If you don’t think your data is being collected, shared, sold, and or monetized without your consent, here is some evidence that you should consider:

“Google says that will prevent the company from remembering where you’ve been. Google’s support page on the subject states: “You can turn off Location History at any time. With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.” That isn’t true. Even with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.”

apnews.com (Aug. 13, 2018)

“Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.”

nytimes.com (Dec. 18, 2018)

The Current Data Trend: Biometric Data

Companies have our personal data. They have our behavioral data. Now they are collecting our biometric data.

“Biometrics systems are designed to identify or verify the identity of people by using their intrinsic physical or behavioral characteristics. Biometric identifiers include fingerprints; iris, face and palm prints; gait; voice; and DNA, among others. “

Biometrics, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Biometric data is at the forefront of the privacy conversations at this very moment. In a landmark case in Illinois regarding the Biometric Privacy Information Act (BIPA), a mother filed suit on behalf of her son regarding the collection of her son’s fingerprint by a business. In that case, the Supreme Court of Illinois recently reversed the lower court’s ruling and found that “an individual need not allege actual injury beyond his or her rights to be entitled to seek damages and relief.”

Personally, I think Illinois is on to something with their BIPA Act. I wonder how many states will create laws to protect biometric data. On a related note, you might find it not so shocking that Facebook has apparently been fighting to “gut” the privacy laws, such as the Biometric Privacy Information Act (as reported by Wired). Go figure.

Amazon Selling Face Recognition Systems to the Government?

There is another major battlefront on the horizon, and it involves face recognition. It should come as no shock to you that when you are looking at a screen, there are cameras pointed directly at your face. And not just any cameras. High-quality cameras. 4K cameras. Sometimes there are multiple forward facing cameras. And you don’t have to guess who now has high-res images of your face as well as powerful software that is getting better and better at identifying people based on facial features.

According to a recent USAToday.com story, “Face recognition, powered by artificial intelligence, could allow the government to supercharge surveillance by automating identification and tracking.”

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon each have powerful facial recognition systems and/or software, but according the story in USAToday, Amazon is the only one trying to sell theirs (Amazon Rekognition) to government agencies. In fact, according to the ACLU:

“Amazon, meanwhile, has doubled down on efforts to sell facial recognition technology to government, despite continued warnings from consumers, employees, members of Congress, and shareholders. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledged his company’s products might be put to “bad uses,” but said the solution was to wait for society’s eventual “immune response” to take care of the problems. Further, recent reports revealed that the FBI is piloting the use of Rekognition, Amazon’s face surveillance product, and that Amazon recently met with ICE officials about its face surveillance product.”

ACLU

I don’t like Amazon’s approach to this issue. Our society is in a rough spot right now. It seems like we are too divided to solve anything. I don’t think we would have the first idea of how to come up with an “immune response” — one that both political parties would support — to solve any “bad uses” of facial recognition, especially when the software is being used by government agencies.

Side note: If a major retail/tech giant selling face recognition software to government agencies doesn’t sound creepy to you, then I don’t know if anything will. Thankfully there are dozens of groups who are asking those industry giants to not sell their face recognition systems to the government.

Soon Meme (Honey Bear)
Soon Meme (Honey Bear)

The New Economy: Surveillance Capitalism

In a recent, must-read Financial Times article, Facebook, Google and a Dark Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff, provides a powerful, insightful view into a new economy she calls ‘surveillance capitalism’.

This is where we live now — a world in which nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device or vehicle, every “digital assistant” — each is a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data.

– Shoshana Zuboff (Jan. 24, 2019)

Because I work in the Search Marketing industry, I enjoyed her brief synopsis of where this whole thing started. It’s like the unofficial origin story of ‘surveillance capitalism’:

“Surveillance capitalism was invented in the teeth of the dot.com bust, when a fledgling company called Google decided to try and boost ad revenue by using its exclusive access to largely ignored data logs — the “digital exhaust” left over from users’ online search and browsing. The data would be analysed for predictive patterns that could match ads and users. Google would both repurpose the “surplus” behavioural data and develop methods to aggressively seek new sources of it.”

– Shoshana Zuboff (Jan. 24, 2019)

In her article, Zuboff describes how this quest for data as a means to revenue eventually migrated to Facebook and then to virtually every Silicon Valley start-up and app and beyond. In reference to the previously-discussed concept of consumers as products, Zuboff offers an alternative point of view:

“In this logic, surveillance capitalism poaches our behaviour for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains and our beating hearts. You are not ‘the product’ but rather the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus data ripped from your life.”

– Shoshana Zuboff (Jan. 24, 2019)

In my opinion, Zuboff’s conclusion nails it. Seeing ourselves as the product still arguably leaves us with some sense of self worth. In Zuboff’s view, we are not important to the companies at all. We are the abandoned carcasses. The only thing that companies care about is the data they can extract from us and our behaviors. Ouch. Here I was, thinking that these companies actually cared about me. 💔

In my opinion, Shoshana Zuboff’s article really ties the room together. It allows us to see how all of these data pieces fit together. How it all came together in a new way of doing business. In many ways, it has changed the relationship between businesses and customers. Businesses have always needed customers to buy things. Now, businesses just need customers to do things, so that apps and devices can monitor and track their behaviors to monetize at a later date.

If My TV is Cheaper, Maybe The Surveillance is Okay.

In a recent interview with Vizio CTO Bill Baxter, he essentially says Vizio is able to price their televisions lower because Vizio can employ additional business strategies to make money off of data and advertising after the purchase of the TV.

“So look, it’s not just about data collection. It’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV. This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6-percent margin industry, right? I mean, you know it’s pretty ruthless. You could say it’s self-inflicted, or you could say there’s a greater strategy going on here, and there is. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost.”

– Bill Baxter, CTO, Vizio (Jan. 7, 2019)

How do you feel being told that your TV is cheaper because they are tracking and monetizing your data and behaviors after the purchase? It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Pause. Not!

Lettuce Wrap This Up

In a recent article in The Guardian, author John Naughton writes:

“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.”

– John Naughton (Jan. 20, 2019)

It occurred to me several times over the years that this brave new world of smart devices, apps, and artificial intelligence is nothing but a complex surveillance system built to capture and monetize my personal data and behaviors. Just kidding. I’m not that bright. I might not have had the complete picture, but I saw hints here and there. I just never had a name for it.

In all likelihood, things are just going to keep rolling in the same direction as they have been. If it really bothered us to be ‘the watched’, we would probably put up a bigger fight. But we’re too busy watching our screens to notice. Or care.

tl;dr In the economy of Surveillance Capitalism, every company has our data, but apparently no one is selling it. Seriously. It’s totally private and secure, so there’s probably nothing to worry about. /s